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Adam Rutherford on Coronavirus, Racism and Black Lives Matter

Posted on 1st February 2021 by Mark Skinner

Adam Rutherford's How to Argue With a Racist has taken its rightful place amongst other vital contemporary volumes interrogating systemic racism in modern society. In the period of time between its original publication and its paperback incarnation (and selection as Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month for February) an awful lot has happened and it all impacts on notions of race and the appalling inequality suffered by minority groups. In this exclusive piece, Rutherford details these tumultuous events and what they mean for a progressive and enlightened society.

People often ask how long it takes me to write a book, which is not an easy question to answer. It was two years between signing a contract and the publication of How To Argue With a Racist, but there are months of research before that, weeks of staring at the screen and making endless coffee, all on top of a lifetime of studying my subject. So when it finally comes out, there is no guarantee that the timing is going to hit its mark.

I write about things that I think are interesting, about how science and history shape our culture, but also things that I think will pique the interest of readers in the current climate. How To Argue With a Racist was first published on February 6th 2020. A few weeks later, the world turned upside down. In the original introduction I wrote that with nationalism on the rise, and with new genetic techniques fuelling a resurgence of outdated or specious views about ancestry, conversations about race had once again become part of our public discourse. I didn’t quite anticipate what would happen in the following months.

6th February 2020 was the day that the third case of Covid19 was identified in the UK. As I write these words, it has been announced that the death toll in the UK has passed 100,000. As early as March we were beginning to see that though Covid19 threatened every human alive, it was killing with discrimination. As the disease spread, it became clear that Black, Asian and other people of minority ethnicities were significantly more at risk than those with primarily White European ancestry. From the beginning of the pandemic, as early as April, striking disparities were seen: in the UK, the Black population is around 3 per cent, but the COVID deaths among Black people were twice that. In Chicago, where one third of the population is Black, almost three quarters of people who died were Black. In New York, almost twice as many hospital admissions were Hispanic or Latino compared to White people.

None of us saw this coming. But it was entirely predictable. We know that well-established social and cultural phenomena have very significant negative effects on health in minority communities. People from these groups are much more likely to be key workers and, therefore, continued to provide vital services, notably in the NHS. Minority groups tend to live in densely populated urban areas – often in effectively segregated housing– where social distancing is more difficult to practise. They are more likely to live in multigenerational households, again making social distancing more difficult and increasing the risk to elderly people. All of these factors are well-known to negatively correlate with health and life expectancy. None are unique to COVID-19. One preliminary study in the UK showed that the increased risk of death among Black people vanished if social deprivation and other underlying health conditions were taken into account.

And then, at the end of May – while governments were scrabbling around with varying degrees of efficacy – a 46-year-old black man allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill in a shop in Minneapolis. He was arrested, and the life was crushed out of him as a policeman knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, killing him with nothing but silence and weight. The killing of George Floyd set touchpapers alight around the world for frustrated demonstrations, and in the racial tinderbox of America they erupted into violence and running battles with a police armoured like soldiers in a video game.

Meanwhile, the statue of the prominent slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth in Bristol in June, and cast into the Bristol harbour by locals, exhausted by ongoing foiled legitimate attempts to remove his effigy from the public space. During the summer, the names of three hugely influential, important and profoundly racist scientists at my own university were removed from buildings and professorships. Some of these were decisions that I was involved in, and part of a wider discussion about Britain’s racist past.

On February 24th, on Oxford Street in London, Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student from my own university was savagely beaten, the four assailants shouting, ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.’ In America, there have been thousands of COVID related attacks, and President Trump exacerbated xenophobia by referring to the novel coronavirus as ‘China virus’ and the moronically racist epithet ‘Kung Flu’.

As shocking as all of these events are, the racism involved is nothing new. It just took a pandemic, and global race riots to reveal them again. And even though Trump is gone, and we are edging towards mass vaccinations that should end this pandemic, the problems of systemic and structural racism persist. I was not celebratory when How To Argue With a Racist found its audience. Instead, I am just grateful that it is a useful part of our public discourse in the fight against bigotry, alongside the works of Reni Eddo Lodge, and David Olusoga, Afua Hirsch, Julia Neuberger, Sathnam Sanghera and others. Science is a core part of the story of racism in the west, martialled as it was into the political ideology of Empire. Today though, it is no ally to racists, and is a vital tool in the fight against racism. That trajectory is worth celebrating. 

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