The Deadly Mix of Individual Responsibility and Racial Capitalism

Poor people of color are dying in droves so that a privileged few can enjoy pretending life is “back to normal.”

Something in America is broken. Over the last 10 months, the U.S. has consistently represented over 20 percent of global deaths due to COVID-19, despite having only 4 percent of the world’s population. The need for a radical intervention is clear. Much of the lackluster response to the pandemic in this country can be attributed to an intense ideological attachment to the supremacy of individual responsibility, or the belief that each of us is obligated solely to ourselves. But the pandemic has made it clear that regardless of what we’d like to believe, we live in a society where our individual actions have implications for others. In other words, in a country where individual responsibility reigns supreme, a collective problem has brought us to our knees. 

As much as the battle against COVID-19 has been a physical one, it has also revealed rhetorical battles that cut straight to the heart of issues that have plagued the United States since its birth. Racism, the nature of democracy, the concept of universal human rights, and the exploitative logic of capitalism have each been invoked, sometimes all at once, as aspects of our society that made the pandemic far worse than it might have been. First, it was said that the virus “didn’t discriminate.” Then we watched in horror as Black and low-income people died at wildly disproportionate rates. It was also said that the pandemic was an economic catastrophe—yet, we now know that the 10 richest men in the world have seen their wealth increase by $540 billion, an amount that would cover vaccinations against COVID-19 for the world’s population. Finally, policies such as city or state-wide mask mandates sparked outrage in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Idaho, with protests and lawsuits claiming that such policies violated individual rights and autonomy. Such claims have persistently dogged public health-informed arguments that swift, decisive, and collective action was necessary to save lives. 

In this age of intense polarization and rhetorical dive-bombing, claiming that individual rights have been violated is typically a conversation ender, rather than a starter. Individual rights are given primacy over all other considerations, and in a country mired in its own obsession with liberalism, it is difficult to know how to respond to such protestations except with empty scoffing. But COVID-19 has made some things impossible to ignore any longer: namely that we do not live in a safe, healthy, or prosperous society. And so we must reckon with the rhetoric of individual rights—and examine the role this idea plays in our logic, our decision-making, and the structure of our (deeply unequal) society. In order to do this, we argue that the obsession with individual rights cannot be divorced from capitalism, and more specifically the racialized nature of capitalist logic. 

Coined in 1983 by renowned political theorist Cedric Robinson, this concept is known as “racial capitalism.” Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a prison abolitionist and student of Robinson’s, characterizes racial capitalism as “capitalism’s requirement for inequality [which] historically coalesced through racial practices that developed between and among people.” Put more succinctly, racial capitalism is the idea that the development of capitalism has always gone hand in hand with the social construction of race.

In describing the legacy of Reconstruction, Robinson called the rewards of racial hierarchy to poor whites and, in fact, the majority of Americans, a “paltry dividend,” as quoted by American historian and UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley. Paltry or not, that dividend remains today. White Americans benefit materially and structurally from racial hierarchy, whether through enjoying healthier lives, amassing wealth to pass to younger generations, or simply enjoying the ability to move through various stages of life without fear of violence or discrimination. As this country is exhausted by exponentially increasing precarity, however, the benefits of whiteness are becoming more precious and the attempts to maintain a racial hierarchy (and the paltry dividend it provides) more concerted.

The embedded logic of racial capitalism has been especially prominent in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic recession. This logic is filled with seeming contradictions: withholding healthcare and other benefits from people who are deemed essential to economic stability hardly seems like an efficient or effective system. And yet after just a few weeks of “hero pay,” Kroger announced (and followed through on) its plan to end a policy that gave an extra $2 per hour for front-line workers. By June 2020, Tyson had reinstated a policy it had canceled in March, which punished workers who called in sick. Such apparent contradictions are not present in every industry—things are mostly fine in the tech and finance sectors. However, the retail and meatpacking industries, where low-income workers of color are over-represented, have seen some of the most punitive and inhumane responses to the pandemic. This reflects a clear hierarchy of value when it comes to different types of workers’ lives. These stories serve to illustrate a peculiar (and disastrous) characteristic of racial capitalism: the impulse, or perhaps imperative, to double down on failed solutions to social problems. 

Most of these problems are not impossible to solve. At the start of the pandemic there was a brief moment of hope and encouragement, as our global society and local communities alike came together in shared understanding of how to take care of each other in a moment of crisis. In April 2020, we spoke with bankers as Congress’ CARES Act relief was reaching people and businesses. They described how customers’ strained finances were eased once stimulus checks were deposited into their accounts. They described proudly processing applications for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). They reported feeling like they were a part of something bigger, doing their part to save the economy while racing to get relief to their small business customers. Despite operating on separate parallel rails, there was hope that the public and private sectors could deliver the collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic recession that our nation needed.

Unfortunately, hope was short lived, as doctrines of individual responsibility and profitability eclipsed the initial acknowledgment of collective harm caused by COVID. The first stimulus check—an extraordinarily effective intervention that may have prevented up to 12.5 million people from falling into poverty and served as a beacon of our responsibility to each other during a crisis—quickly became the only check of 2020. Within the banking industry, the rails of racial capitalism were already set up to prioritize white-owned businesses. In their subsequent race for profits, banks systematically excluded Black- and minority-owned businesses simply by prioritizing their existing customers for PPP loans. In addition, historical experiences of being treated poorly or turned away by traditional banks meant that many minority business owners may not have even applied for loans. Indeed, one study found that only 12 percent of minority-owned businesses received the financial support they requested from the PPP program. People were left to fend for themselves, struggling to make ends meet and keep their businesses afloat.

What would a sustained collective response to the pandemic have looked like? We needn’t look to a fantasy world for examples. In virtually all European countries and in Canada, monthly relief packages are either easily renewed or do not have a set end date. In Australia, their stimulus package included free childcare for all. Even low-income countries like Vietnam gave free masks to anyone who needed them, understanding that a public health crisis can’t be ended by individual actors.

When all you have is a hammer, however, everything becomes a nail. A hammer is a blunt tool designed to pound. After the glimmer of hope from CARES Act relief, the U.S. quickly returned to an ideology of neoliberal austerity as it tried to force a square “individual responsibility” peg into a round “collective responsibility” hole. Thus, the realities of racial capitalism’s logic are revealed when individual responsibility, a solution consistently highlighted for its failure, is thrust forth as the primary pandemic response.  

Incompatible with a pluralistic society, individual responsibility is a dangerous myth that glorifies grit and determination in the face of hardship, insisting that these attributes are all that’s needed for success. Meanwhile, the myth deems those who are trampled by the same logic as unfortunate but acceptable casualties, since the path to individual achievement demands constant competition. Holding tight to such a mythology has endowed individuals with the right to decide whether or not to follow basic safety protocols during a public health crisis, enabling them to abandon responsibility for the countless people they may infect as a result.

Doubling down on individual responsibility and the tired logic of racial capitalism is proving fatal.   

Nearly a year after the novel, airborne, and highly contagious coronavirus was first diagnosed in the United States, the country still hasn’t enacted a nationwide mask mandate. The federal government’s decision to forgo a collective response in favor of many individual ones has resulted in an ineffective patchwork of responses across the country and a skyrocketing infection rate. Americans have lost over 480,000 people and over 2.5 million years of life to the coronavirus, even while masks are proven to be an effective and low-cost way to control the spread of the virus and prevent people from dying. 

Nothing crystallizes the high cost of fetishizing the individual quite as clear as opposition to masks. In Hamilton, Montana, the sheriff and county commissioners rejected Democratic ex-Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate, saying that individual rights were more important. Some residents characterized the mandate as living in a dictatorship, “bending the knee to tyranny.” Since their refusal to enforce the mask mandate, Hamilton’s infection rate continues to double every two weeks. More recently, South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem defended her decision to reject a state-wide mask mandate, calling mask-wearing a “personal decision” despite her state holding the second highest infection and death rate per capita in the country. 

There is an obvious contradiction between taking individual responsibility for wearing a mask but not for enacting collective harms. That contradiction is resolved, however, by the presumption of racial hierarchy (i.e., a wealthy white person can refuse to wear a mask if poor people of color are the ones endangered by that decision). This is perhaps the most important thing to remember about the violence of racial capitalism: a logic of racial hierarchy absolves believers from any harm that is done to those who are lesser-than. 

Doubling down on individual responsibility means doubling down on racial capitalism’s collective harms—ones that disproportionately hurt marginalized groups yet ultimately injure us all. Racial capitalism’s contradictions drove decisions to open bars and restaurants while daycares and elementary schools remained closed, pushing primarily female caregivers out of the labor market and deepening the recession. Meanwhile, Black and Brown women were sent to the frontlines of the pandemic, the implication being that their high rates of infection and death were acceptable tributes to the economy. Racial capitalism’s contradictions convinced universities to squander the public trust by bringing students back to campuses to protect tuition dollars, while placing disproportionate risks on Black and Brown adjunct faculty and staff whose precarious positions in institutional hierarchies didn’t afford the same protections as their whiter co-workers with more secure positions

If doubling down on individual responsibility is failing, then a different logic focused on a commitment to collective humanity and shared fate is a potential alternative. Organizers, activists, and scholars of color have been pointing us toward this possibility for decades. Just in the last year, Ruth Wilson Gilmore has implored us to think expansively about our relationships to each other and to institutions. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a public academic, has called for radical responsiveness, or what she calls “responding to the world as it is.” Such responsiveness would mean ripping away the red tape that obscures so much of the violent logic of racial hierarchy that we have described here. It would mean radically redistributing resources to reflect the needs of our poorest, hungriest, and most vulnerable. Barbara Smith, Black feminist activist and scholar, has called on us to imagine new, collective responses that challenge racial capitalism. Examples of such policies are not far from the public eye: two out of three U.S. residents believe that the government should provide Medicare for All, a policy that assumes a logic of collective rather than individual responsibility. Perhaps a bolder collective response (though in no way a less rational one) is universal basic income. These policy suggestions not only assume that each of us is valuable, worthy, and deserving, but also that we are fundamentally connected to one another, and therefore bear some responsibility for society’s collective harms.

Abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba urges us to believe that “everything worthwhile is done with other people.” Adopting a new logic that emphasizes our collective humanity and shared fate will require many of us to exercise different muscles and stretch our thinking. It will require us to leave behind the illusory trappings of racial capitalism and to choose instead a logic that makes it possible to invest radically and generously at a collective level. For a country that has always clung desperately to the historical construction of racialized, capitalistic logic, the challenges to abolishing it are formidable. Yet the potential rewards are profound. This commitment would be a generative one, open to new possibilities and free of already-failed paths that have been pounded again, and again, and again. This commitment encourages expansive and imaginative thinking. Political activist and author Arundhati Roy invited us to use the pandemic to “imagine the world anew.” Together, with courage and persistence, maybe we can do just that. 

Anna K. Wood is a joint PhD student in social work and sociology at the University of Michigan. Follow @AKW_SocioloWork.

Terri Friedline is an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and author of the book, Banking on a Revolution: Why Financial Technology Won’t Save a Broken System. Follow @TerriFriedline.

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