Immunosociology: Racism the virus, activism the immune system

As the citizens of Baltimore took to the streets in response to the death of Freddie Gray, I took to the bathroom in response to a nasty virus that had found its way into my stomach. I found myself noticing some similarities regarding root causes that inform my understanding of Baltimore and other sites of conflict in the world.

Let me be upfront with this, I am not comparing my suffering to that felt in Baltimore. There is nothing similar about my awful night and several nights of violence* born out of centuries of even more violent systemic oppression. If anyone needs further clarification, please let me know, because I do not want my metaphor to be lost in miscommunication.

Now that that has been said, I can move forward with a take that I have seen not in other commentaries on Baltimore.

Essentially, I find myself viewing more violent and destructive responses in Baltimore or Ferguson or Madison or Detroit or lots of other cities as symptoms to a disease.

Though I have not formally studied biology since 8th grade, I understand symptoms as side effects of our imprecise immune system. An immune system that is split into two parts, the innate, made up of white blood cells, and the adaptive, made up of learned antibodies that make sure you nip that virus in the bud the next time you encounter.

My innate immune system fought a virus through the complete upheaval of my digestive system. The bathroom was in shambles as I finally stumbled off to sleep at three, with plans to clean up in the morning. I awoke five hours later dehydrated and reeling. My host mother Isis had cleaned up the bathroom while I slept, but shrugged off my thanks and insisted I drink more fluids to recover.

All of those awful experiences were symptoms of my virus, but I did not (seriously) curse my body or my immune system. I cursed the unnamed virus. Just like when I have a cold, I do not condemn my runny nose, my cough, or my fever, I condemn the rhinovirus. After the biological violence is finished, my adaptive immune system remembers the virus should I encounter it again.

Now consider society in place of the human body, racism as the virus, activism and law as our innate and adaptive immune systems, respectively. Racism, as I have come to understand it, hurts society through disenfranchising people of color. Currently that disenfranchisement concretely manifests itself through the systemic and unequal use of force against blacks, which fosters a sense of fear.

Activism responds both nonviolently and violently, when law does not properly resolve an issue. Activism creates social discontent. Perhaps there are marches and people feel shame. Perhaps property is destroyed and cities are left in shambles. Perhaps there are riots and people feel fear. Social communities begin to fracture as we disagree. Sadly, and I think erroneously, people choose to alienate themselves from one another. Of course, these are all symptoms.

The metaphor comes apart in our reaction. Instead of condemning the virus, we condemn our innate immune system. We treat the symptoms by ignoring nonviolent protests and shutting down more violent protest responses instead of adapting to end society’s affliction with racism.

Of course, while this is an apt metaphor, we can aspire to be better than our hive-minded immune system. Medical professionals, or political leaders and scholars, diagnose the diseases of society. We can try preventative treatments like workshops on racism to foster a cultural conscience that rejects racism. We can develop antibodies, through structural legal change, to recognize and prematurely exterminate inevitable encounters with racism. Failing to adapt illustrates how we, largely the white descendants of a racist system, have fallen short.

Though we have fallen short, we can definitely all be more like my host mother and graciously help the recovery, even as we adapt moving forward.

*I struggled with how to characterize these recent nights in Baltimore. Chaos? Fear? Destruction? Each is politically weighted, so I chose the word I hear most often used in other non-shaming commentaries.

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5 thoughts on “Immunosociology: Racism the virus, activism the immune system”

  1. I can mostly see this and even agree with it. It still leaves the question as to what to do about the folks who did the destroying of property and hurting people. Those whose property it was and those who were attacked deserve justice too. It’s delicate for sure but there needs to be a way of acknowledging and address the outcry while sacrificing folks whose crimes were being in the wrong place or having a business in the area.

      1. I figured.

        And I am glad you can dig the metaphor. It is one that would seem palatable to many audiences though while communicating what I believe to be a truth. Looking back, “law” is better replaced with “institutions” though.

        As for your bit on people who were attacked and property destroyed, I would still call that a symptom of racism, since racism created the situation. With that in mind, the individuals do not bear fault alone. I believe taxes should pay the bill to repair property. We should seek a just option against those that acted destructively in Baltimore that recognizes that theirs was a small grievance in the grand scheme.

        We find that just option through conversation with all involved parties, especially the disenfranchised, since existing power structures are not guilt-free. At least that would be my recommended approach.

        That strategy would also go a long way further than post-American Revolution fallout for Loyalists or just the neutral who lost property and life without proper reparations.

        Feel free to answer or not, just wanted to respond.

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