29.06.20 Desirée Martín
For me, the pandemic has so far consisted of one part terror to three parts tedium. As a university professor at UC Davis, I have been working from home since mid-March, teaching classes, grading papers, and performing my administrative graduate director duties entirely online, along with erratically trying and failing to write. The trying, failing, and trying again to write is work that I have conducted in solitude and from home for more than two decades, so you would think that I would be perfectly used to it. Although I am a single mom, I have the luxury and the privilege to care for my two boys at home and work at the same time, even if much of my work has had to happen early in the morning or at night while they are asleep. Despite the occasional challenges and heartache that we have faced, I have the financial and educational resources to help the children with their schoolwork and provide them with the tools to access distance learning, and we have been safe at home with all of our needs met.
I could say that my biggest problem has been not being able to go visit my family in Mexico City and not being able to take a planned trip to Spain with my brother and his family. I miss my extended family, none of whom live nearby, and I despair at the thought of not being able to see them for a year or more, but we all know: these are elite problems. I read the statistics indicating that fewer than 16% of Latinxs are able to work from home – a testament to the makeup of the nation’s essential workforce – and that infections among Latinxs have far outpaced those of the rest of the nation, currently comprising 57% of new COVID-19 cases in California although they make up only 39% of the state’s population. How can I entertain any petit bourgeois complaints when so many people have died and even more are sick and/or have lost their jobs? The New York Times reports a contradictory truth, “Infection rates have remained relatively low in affluent neighborhoods, including those occupied by the state’s wealthy Latinos,” while “sheltering in place never happened for many Latino families with members who work in industries that never shut down, making them especially vulnerable to the virus” (“Many Latinos Couldn’t Stay Home,” 6/26/20). Latinxs in California balance over a chasm of racial and economic inequality that is increasing as exponentially as the virus. These are my people, the people who raised me, who I grew up with, whom I love. These are the people that I mostly do not live or work among now, and have not done so for many years in my university professor life in the “affluent neighborhood” of Davis, CA.
My single mom pandemic life of one part terror to three parts tedium has also meant that most days, I am either so busy cooking, cleaning, washing dishes and working that I don’t even have time to think; or when the boys are with their father, that I have all the time in the world to panic as I go down the internet rabbit hole of the latest news. There seems to be no in between. But the terror and the tedium are connected, and lately, I find that they are most connected through the policing of pandemic and race in a place like Davis, a small, suburban, largely white liberal college town located in the northern Central Valley of California.
In Davis, as in many other mostly white liberal areas in the United States, there is at least lip-service paid to the impact of large-scale policing, police brutality, and the police as “violence workers” (Alex S. Vitale), perhaps because it is a college town with regular access to intellectual life. But as in many college towns, there is a town-gown divide in Davis, for the university student population is firmly majority non-white, and thus far more diverse than the town itself. This divide between townies and students is exacerbated by the fact that at least 2/3 of the students left the area when the pandemic lockdown started and UC Davis transitioned to online classes. The town feels empty without the students, and the local economy has definitely suffered. City council officials lament that the exodus of students has cut sales tax revenues by 50%. Meanwhile, without all of the undergraduates around – 23% of whom identified as Latinx in 2020, recently allowing UC Davis to attain an HSI/”Hispanic” Serving Institution status – Davis also feels much whiter to me.
Without the students, life in Davis feels as if it is all town and no gown. For me, this really reveals the insidiousness of the town’s white liberal community policing. With no masses of students on campus or in town, no calls of “Hi, Professor!” at the supermarket or while walking on the local greenbelt (which, I will confess, used to really annoy me), and no jockeying for space with students at downtown cafes, the casual and not-so-casual racism of my local NextDoor feed becomes all the more intolerable. With the streets empty of students, the friendly tedium and banal terror that I sometimes feel while walking through neighborhoods of huge houses with manicured lawns and camper vans or boats parked outside that have tidy placards in front proclaiming “No matter where you come from, you are welcome here” in English, Spanish, and Arabic; or “We are all in this together,” is more alienating than ever before.
The community policing in this town newly without gown is evident in the forthright hand-wringing over the “Hispanic” and largely immigrant farmworker community who mostly live in neighboring country towns, with their penchant for holding large family gatherings that have led to scattered local outbreaks of COVID-19. Well before the pandemic took hold, Black people were routinely viewed by neighbors with suspicion and fear simply because they are walking or jogging on the greenbelts. Meanwhile, the tendency to warily regard Asian and Asian-American students as interchangeably “other” demonstrates the way that they are often policed through their perceived status as inherently foreign.
Stories about the racist policing of bodies abound. A friend who also teaches at UC Davis, one of the few other Chicana faculty that I know on campus, mentions on social media that Davis is the first and only place she’s lived where she’s been called the n-word. Writing in the local newspaper, UC Davis sociology professor Orly Clergé draws attention to the many Black students and faculty who are speaking up at UC Davis and other universities about both racism and colorism in academia. Clergé notes that although Black students’ numbers across the UC system are quite low in general, UC Davis likely struggles even more to attract them because it is such a STEM-heavy institution, and STEM has a reputation for being a toxic place for Black students. More damningly, she points out that the minoritized student population at UC Davis, which is majority Latinx and Asian, can also be extremely colorist: “From my courses, it is clear that Asian and Latinx students also harbor anti-Black beliefs which they act out when on campus” (Davis Enterprise, “A Severe Toll”). Across the town-gown divide, is imperative that we make visible what has too often been invisible for too many: the casual complicity in racial injustice through the policing of bodies on campus and in town, the colorism that many of our minoritized populations simultaneously perpetuate and suffer from, and, especially in our pandemic times, the association of immigrants and Latinxs in particular with contagion and disease.
There have been a number of regular candlelight vigils and marches for Black Lives in Davis, most recently one on Father’s Day which drew hundreds of marchers, many of them families with children, wearing masks and holding signs. UC Davis’ summer sessions and Fall quarter will be conducted online, so the undergraduates are mostly still gone, and the local actions for Black Lives reflect their absence. Still, the fact that these actions are regularly occurring demonstrates the best aspects of the town. And yet: on my regular bike ride with my boys in the morning, I noticed that almost all of the signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice For Breonna Taylor” that had recently popped up on the pedestrian bridges had disappeared. Meanwhile, someone on NextDoor reported that their hand-painted George Floyd mural had been stolen from their yard. Last week the signs and placards were abundant, repeating over and over the names of Black lives murdered by the police. There are still some signs here and there, and new ones will surely take the place of the ones that have been removed. But were the signs and murals torn down by those who insist that “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter?” Were they ripped away by bored teenagers escaping the constraints of lockdown home life? Or were they just blown away by the Central Valley wind? The apparent frequency of the disappearance of signs and murals around town would suggest not.
The work of dismantling white supremacy is necessarily uncomfortable, and far too many white and white-passing, assimilated people are unable to handle any discomfort for any length of time. Perhaps the exclusion wrongly perceived by some when they see Black Lives Matter signs, the sudden need to discuss police brutality and racism as more than just a remnant of the past with their children, and the sensation of feeling complicit with and implicated in racial injustice is just too unfamiliar for them. At best, maybe it feels like tedium. But what feels like mere tedium to some has always been terror for Black, Indigenous, and many other people of color. During this pandemic, I have often returned to Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (1951), with its unsurpassed evocation of the fusion of tedium and terror that shapes the lived experience of racial injustice for Black people in the U.S.: “What happens to a dream deferred?/…Maybe it just sags like a heavy load./Or does it explode?” Well before the pandemic happened, for those of us who have had no choice but to discern and experience the overt and subtle racism and colorism that is inherent to everyday life in the United States, the terror and the tedium have been always been inseparable. We know that they will continue to be inseparable long after the pandemic is over. But maybe the difference – the new normal – post-pandemic will be that those in power will be forced to confront this reality also. It is all of our task to make sure that this is the case.