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Eddie Conway talks with professor Dylan Rodriguez about how COVID-19 has exposed anti-Chinese sentiment, how it’s inseparable from anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and colonial violence, and how radical movements must include collective care to survive.

Story Transcript

SPEAKER: Asian American are under attack.

SPEAKER 2: Do you think that using the phrase “Chinese Virus” is–

KELLYANNE CONWAY: I think what the president was saying is that’s where it started. I’m married to an Asian.

SPEAKER 3: This is why you have a virus.

SPEAKER 4: Hi. I’m so sorry, but I think that was a very racist comment.

SPEAKER 5: Yeah?

SPEAKER 4: Yeah.

SPEAKER 5: Wow, great. I said you dropped your Coronavirus.

SPEAKER 6: A person at the White House used the term “kung flu.” My question is–

DONALD TRUMP: “Kung flu.”

SPEAKER 6: …do you think that’s wrong? “Kung flu.” And do you think using the term Chinese virus, that puts Asian-Americans at rick that people might target them?

DONALD TRUMP: No, no, no. I think they probably would agree with it one hundred percent.

EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore for The Real News.

There’s a lot in the news about COVID-19 and there’s very little discussion about how this is impacting different races and class. So joining me today to kind of give us an overview of what’s going on in that environment is Dylan Rodriguez, professor at Riverside University. Dylan, welcome. Thanks for joining me.

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me as always, Eddie.

EDDIE CONWAY: Dylan, can you give us an overview of what the racist environment around this pandemic looks like?

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: There’s so many different layers to understanding how it is that the pandemic is, on the one hand, demonstrating all the embedded systemic, institutional and ideological forms of racism that have always been present since really the foundations of the United States in its modern form. It’s important for everybody to understand, the pandemic has not introduced anything new in terms of racist ideology, racist rhetoric, and racist state mobilizations. Nothing is new. What’s happened is that the pandemic has helped, on the one hand, in a very immediate sense to demystify the historical persistence of very specific forms of anti-Asian, specifically anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia that I think, until this moment, most political pundits, even academics, public intellectuals and some journalists would likely characterize as artifacts, past tense, artifacts of the 19th century, of World War II, maybe the Korean War, maybe the Vietnam War.

So in thinking about these particular forms of anti-Asian racism, that of course the White House is amplifying on a daily basis through press conferences, through Twitter and everything else, what we I think have to understand is that these particular forms of racism are actually constitutive. They are foundational to everyday normalized white supremacist thought, racist thought and culture in the US including and especially in the halls of the federal government and the White House. So that’s one thing.

I think what is critically important, and my good friend and colleague Connie Wun, the founder of AAPI Women Lead, is one of the leading people thinking about this, is that these particular forms of anti-Asian racism that are being amplified in this moment are inseparable from the longstanding foundational paradigmatic forms of state violence and racist violence against people on the border and especially against poor, marginalized and vulnerable black folks.

So if we think about anti-Asian racism as inseparable from different forms of anti-blackness and different forms of colonial violence, then we have something that we have to analyze far more deeply than just the COVID-19 pandemic. And I think that one way to understand how this works, how this interconnectedness works, is to look at what is becoming exposed at this point through the pandemic as the genocidal logic of the incarcerating racist state, the carceral racist state. What we have to understand is that the pandemic shows this is not a mass incarceration state. This is a state that targets people. It is a form of low intensity normalized domestic war that targets very specific populations, poor populations, black populations in particular geographies, brown, indigenous and undocumented populations for incarceration. And the pandemic is subjecting these folks to mass vulnerability to a contagion that nobody understands. Right?

The scientific committee is struggling to understand this thing, struggling to understand what mortality and vulnerability and long lasting affects your respiratory system are like. The folks who are essentially being used as if they are test rats for this are people who are locked up. And keep in mind, everybody listening to this, that the vast majority of the people who are locked up in jails, who are being exposed to this pandemic, to this contagion we don’t understand, are folks who are awaiting trial. So even the right wingers that are watching this, even the liberals that are watching this that think that locked up people deserve what they get because they be convicted of a crime, you need to do away with that way of thinking and just understanding that this is about thinking through how it is that people who are allegedly presumed innocent are locked up in jail because they can’t afford bail.

They can’t afford defense and are systemically subjected to this kind of thing. That is not mass incarceration at that point. Right. What you’re talking about is a very specific set of populations that are essentially being used as test rats for figuring this thing out. There’s a lot more to say about how it is that racism is working right now, but I think the interconnectedness between these different forms of racial violence, between anti-blackness, between longstanding forms of colonial violence and then this very particular kind of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism need to be connected all the time, especially by people who are organizing around things like social justice, anti-racism, community, different forms of community empowerment, carceral and prison abolition and so forth.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. It’s an interesting point because we had been looking at the trickle out of prisoners in different States right now, 50 here a hundred there, 200 there. We’re talking about a population of somewhere between two and a half to 3 million people. Is that silence and that lack of kind of attention and focus, is that about the 75% of the prison population is people of color? Is that what we are seeing?

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: I think that’s a central part of this. I mean I think more specifically it’s the fact that more than half of the incarcerated population is black. As we know in the long history of the modern United States, arguably the most disposable populations in the United States have been native people, whose lands are being occupied and who are being displaced from their ecosystems, their economies, and black folks, especially those who are descendants of the chattel system.

So if we understand this continuity that abolitionists, carceral abolitionists, prison abolitionists, organizers, thinkers, activists, students, scholars, formerly incarcerated people have been talking about for at least intensively, at least the last 20 to 25 years, which is that there is a direct continuity between the racial chattel slave system and the modern system of incarceration in the United States. Then we can actually make sense of what you’re talking about Eddie, which is that to the extent that this incarcerating system is a direct derivative of the chattel plantation system, the folks who are locked up, particularly because they’re more than half or majority black, are not seen to be a population that is worthy of mobilization for protection. Right. That they’re essentially, in this sense, not only disposable, but ignorable.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. One of the things that that came to my attention is the way in which Asian countries are actually dealing with this pandemic. It seems that the surveillance systems, which we know is all over the United States and Western nations also, has been used to monitor the temperature of individuals as they come in and out of country, as they travel through the country on trains, bus stations, et cetera. And that has allowed them to gain control over the moving population in terms of who’s spreading this pandemic. And that’s then kept numbers down, I mean in South Korea is a good example, in the surround, Vietnam, the surrounding countries all around China is good examples. but yet they have cameras in all the prisons and everywhere in the Western countries and in the United States in particular. But they’re not using this technology to monitor the temperatures of individuals and select them for tests. Why do you think that is?

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: Well, this is a critical point, Eddie, because surveillance is at this point global, particularly in overdeveloped, so-called first-world or global North countries and societies. What you just pointed out is how it is that surveillance systems are not objective. They are structured in an ideological position of some kind. In particular places it might be a state which is particularly authoritarian that wants to have direct control and surveillance over its population to do things like monitoring the spread of a pandemic, monitoring people’s movements and so forth. In places like the United States the surveillance is not structured through an ethic of caring for the population. That’s what we are seeing here. The surveillance apparatus, the surveillance regime in the United States, the public, meaning the state-run surveillance apparatus, and private or kind of ordinary citizen or corporation or business-run surveillance apparatuses.

They’re not in place to take care of people. They’re there essentially to protect capital, to protect wealth, and to socially control and criminalize people. So nothing in the surveillance apparatus that is in place, from the technology to the administration of it, is actually structured to be mobilized to protect people from the spread of pandemic. None of it. None of the stuff that’s in place does that. Right? Your ring doorbell doesn’t do that. I mean, I’m just thinking about the most mundane forms of people’s surveillance in their homes. Right? That’s not what does that.

The surveillance systems in businesses and on street corners, those things are not there to do that. What they’re there to do is really to control the movement of people for the protection of wealth, for protection of capital, and for protection of state interest. It’s not there for things like a collective protection of the population from spread of disease or even for protection against times of natural disaster and so forth. That’s not what it’s for. So it demystifies this. It tells us that the technology that we’re inhabiting and that we’re negotiating every day, it can’t magically be turned into something which is utilized through an ethic of caring for people. That’s not what this is.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. And you know, I would even go a step further and look at this relief package that has just been delivered or passed through the Senate. $1,200, to me that seems like the people that have money and the people that are of getting bailouts in terms of multinational corporations are going to be okay. But down on the ground, where we’re talking about a vulnerable population that’s living from paycheck to paycheck, from rent to rent, and in too many cases not able to go to work at this point. What does that package say from the government?

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: What it tells us, once again, is that the state does not have the infrastructure of care. The state is not that. In the US the state is not organized around creating, sustaining, much less expanding infrastructures of care for the people that it supposedly serves in times of radical and unknowable vulnerability, like the current moment. This is an alarming thing, but it’s also something that I think grassroots radical movements, even progressive movements have been saying this for many, many, many, many years. Right? Which is that you cannot simply rely on a racist, Neo liberal, corporate protecting, wealth protecting colonial state to suddenly magically serve you in a time of disaster. So what you’re seeing with the bailout package is exactly what you just described, Eddie. It’s the state revealing what it is, that it’s animated by.

And this is across the proverbial aisle. This is not a Republican or Democrat thing. Both parties are structured in the same ethic, which is to say that its infrastructure is poised to protect wealth, corporate capital, the ideological principles of white nationalism, of anti-blackness, of 21st century versions of colonial power and of populist white supremacy. That’s what this bailout package directly reflects.

Folks will talk about $2 trillion; the overwhelming majority of that money is going go essentially into the hands of corporate CEOs. Right? People who actually have control of concentrated wealth, and it’s there to protect their interest. It’s not there to try to flatten curves or to bring in more ventilators or expand hospital beds for folks who are inevitably going to be needing intensive, intensive, critical care.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Let’s just look at another angle of this. Is there lessons that we can learn from this? I mean, people are working from home. They’re basically working with technology. They’re getting their jobs done. Our news network is operational. And I understand that it’s predicted that millions of jobs will probably be lost, won’t come back. But is this something that progressive people or leftist people in America can learn in terms of a new way of operating and delivering services and supplying goods and taking care of each other without being forced into that factory environment?

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: This is the question, Eddie, as far as folks that are probably likely to be watching this interview and logging into Real News Network are concerned. That is the question. I would say this is absolutely a moment in which folks that are involved in anything from traditional grassroots movements, meaning movements that have organizations that are structured and fueled by organizations, people involved with 501(c)(3) grassroots and foundation funded organizations, to ordinary people who are not necessarily involved in a traditional social movement, but are part of a network or community of people that that is trying to do their best to survive the current moment while also being attentive to the need for systemic and structural change so we can get past not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but get past everything from the Trump administration.

For that matter, we had to get past the Obama administration. Right? So for all people who are in any way engaged in struggle, not just social movements, but struggle, struggle to try to make or initiate systemic change within their lifetime, what this moment amplifies, the lesson to be learned is that folks need to organize constantly around and through an ethic of collective care and survival. I’ll repeat that one more time. We, meaning all the folks that are interested in systemic changes that are there to create radical forms of justice, right, radical forms of survival and thriving, especially for the people who are most vulnerable to suffer. We need to organize around and through an ethic of collective care and survival. This is very different, I would argue, than organizing for specific policy aims. Right? It’s very different than organizing around demands on the state or specific institutions like hospitals, schools, universities, local state government, or the courts. Right?

It’s to think about collective care and survival as a method of organizing. This ethic is what should shape the way that we articulate our radical analysis of our conditions. It should shape our rhetorics. I say this because something I think we should have already learned now is that it’s really hard to build socially transformative radical progressive movements through strictly rational analysis. Right? That addresses the bullshit that you hear on Fox news, or corrects the constant lies flowing from different politicians. Trump’s at the top of the pyramid, but it’s happening all the time. It’s happening all the time, to the extent that movements are constantly in a position of being hyper rational, trying to correct untruth with truth, but are not organizing through a method of caring. Right? They’re not going to gain traction.

So movements I think, need to learn the lesson right now, right here, because we’re pushed into position right now and right here, that the ethic of collective care is really a matter of survival. And so we need to let that ethic, the thing we’re in now, mutual aid, people involved in all forms of mutual aid right now. Right? Like I’ve been logging on sending whatever funds I can to all different forms of mutual aid for incarcerated people, people just getting out, folks that are trying to serve the unhoused population, people with food insecurity, all this kind of stuff. Right. What we need to remember, once the pandemic, once COVID-19 passes, is that the ethic of survival, mutual aid, collective care, that has to be a constant. That has to be a methodological imperative in all the organizing we do.

Meaning that the language of collective care has to be part of our analysis, our critique, and I’ll put a special point on this. It has to be part of our own internal struggles. Right? What is particularly difficult about being part of different movements, organizations, collectives that are engaged in left oriented socially transformative struggle is that our internal struggles, we don’t have the luxury generally of falling back on a multimillion dollar foundation to constantly fund us and to allow us to resolve our conflicts in a way that will still sustain our movements. Oftentimes our internal conflicts are so antagonistic and so severe that movements and organizations and organizing actually just falls apart. Right? And so there’s something to be said about how this moment sheds a kind of broader perspective. It puts that stuff into relation to the struggle for survival.

I think we’ve got to figure out a way to engage in robust, even antagonistic and intense debate in terms of internal struggle within different movements and organizing collectives while also keeping an eye to the need for collective care. Right? That you can have a hyper severe antagonism with somebody else that’s involved in your collective or have severe political disagreement with them, but still care. Right? But still care, and still try to figure out ways that you can struggle with and alongside them through an ethic of care, even as you struggle to resolve or deal with your political conflicts. Right? This moment I think has forced a lot of us into that position where folks that we might not have been speaking with, we not have been on speaking terms with them.

I have a bunch of people that have been emailing me, texting me, whatnot, who I’ve had many conflicts within the past. Right. Right. But we’re folks reaching out to each other, let’s say, “Hey, you all right?” Just checking in. Just checking in, man. Sometimes that’s the gesture you need. Check in man, and that’s what I think the political discourse of the movements and the political collective that you’re talking about, Eddie, that’s something that we need to take this as an opportunity to really build or rebuild on that. Right. It’s a sense of community, but not in the romantic sense. Right. It’s a sense of community in the sense that it’s struggle. It’s internal struggle too, but you’ve got to care. You’ve got to have an ethic of care.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Do you have a final statement or anything you’d like to share? That was very powerful, but do you have any final words for our audience?

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. We have to all be radical organizers now, right? If we understand that all we mean by radical is that we are dealing with systemic problems, we’re dealing with the roots of systemic and institutional violence, of asymmetrical suffering, we all need to be radical now. We need to deal with the foundations of that stuff. We need to collectively accept and deal with a definitive premise that’s long been accepted by radical and revolutionary movements around the world for many years, which is the fact that the US state in particular, and corporate capitalism in particular, are the source of the problem. They’re not the solution to the problem. Right? That demands on the state cannot presume that its accountabilities are somehow going to shift to serve the vast majority, much less the most vulnerable people in this population. I’ll also tell people, please, especially if you’re quarantined, build on, in addition to the ethic of care, build on the ethic of self defense. Right?

We need to take seriously all the layered and nuance and complex forms of self-defense. I’m not necessarily telling you to go out and buy a gun, although I’m not against that. Right? But I am saying we need to have a collective sense of self defense, whether it’s martial arts, but really in the broader sense, that we need to be defensive of each other. That’s part of the ethic of care. Right? It is a proactive ethic. It means we need to proactively and aggressively defend each other and ourselves, need to build those skills.

And the last thing I’ll encourage is we need to be as creative as possible in our forms of community building and community sustenance. We need to accompany mutual aid, which is it runs the risk of slipping into philanthropy of charity. That’s not what we need. What we need is mutual aid accompanied by mutual accountability in the sense of even at a small scale, a minor, a modest redistribution of our wealth within our community, within these communities that we build. Right. Because you’re right, Eddie, that $1,200 check, that’s not going to go that far. For most folks, that’s not even half of their rent on a one bedroom apartment. So some notion or some ethic of wealth redistribution, even at a modest scale, is necessary now, although it needs to happen at a much larger scale. I’ll also say pay attention to all the different radical progressive organizations right now that are embracing the creative opportunity to organize differently.

I’m thinking about my good friend and comrade, Rachel Herzing, at the Center for Political Education just sent an email this morning with a bunch of internet accessible or smartphone accessible resources for folks. Everything from music, a playlist to films that are free to download, to books that you can access online, podcasts and whatnot. I mean, this is an ample opportunity to self-educate, to embrace the opportunity, to build reading communities, listening communities. But we got to do that with care. We’ve got to do that with a principaled commitment to radical change. Otherwise, this is going to happen. Right? It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen over and over and there won’t be any of us left to talk about it.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Thank you for joining me, Professor Rodriguez, and hopefully we’ll have some more discussion around this issue in the near future.

DYLAN RODRIGUEZ: Looking good, Eddie.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. All right. And thank you for joining me at The Real News.


Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.