Scapegoating Black Women Won't Solve Anything: On Dr. Immanuel and Disposability
On Monday, President Trump held a public broadcast titled “America’s Frontline Doctors” ostensibly to release new information regarding COVID-19 and the efforts being made to handle the crisis. Since news of Corona first reached the U.S. Trump has, on several occasions, spread misinformation about the effects of the disease and its causes, downplayed the importance of wearing masks, and put forth false claims about “cures” for the virus that do not actually exist, so there was a fair bit of skepticism surrounding the event before it even started. That skepticism proved to be justified, however this time the source of the conspiracy theories was not the president himself but rather a team of Trump approved medical professionals, which included a doctor by the name of Stella Immanuel. Dr. Stella Immanuel is a licensed physician who received her degree in Nigeria and currently works as a pediatrician in Texas. Yesterday Trump retweeted a clip from the event that shows Dr. Immanuel speaking about the supposed benefits of hydroxychloroquine, a medication used to treat Lupus which Trump has erroneously suggested can also be used to fight COVID-19. That there exists no real evidence to prove this did not stop Trump from using Dr. Immanuel as a mouthpiece to reassert this idea. Yet shortly after the clip was posted several other videos in which Dr, Immanuel makes similarly false and harmful statements, such as the belief that health problems can be caused by sex with demons and witches, and that “alien DNA” is a common ingredient used to make medicine, came to light. This quickly robbed her of any credibility she may have had in the public eye. Tellingly however, this did not slow the growth of the brief media spectacle that resulted as a consequence of Trump’s tweet, the responses to which have revealed just as much about the nation’s anxiety over the virus as it has about its deep seated mistrust of and disregard for Black women.
Although all of the doctors that appeared at Monday’s event were in fact licensed physicians, it is unclear whether any of them had experience with COVID-19 specifically or whether infectious disease was something they specialized in. What was clear however, was that each of them were thoroughly convinced of the supposed benefits of hydroxychloroquine and were very intent on convincing the public of this as well, so it would seem that the true purpose of the assembly was simply to add a veneer of integrity to Trump’s false claims and improve his public image. It is important to note however, that even though every doctor who appeared in front of the senate house steps that day participated in this stunt, Dr. Immanuel received the most attention in the press for her views by far. This isn’t surprising given that Black women are often subject to more intense scrutiny for their politics overall and are typically not granted the same leniency as others when their bigotry comes to light. We saw this bias come in to play during the intense period of backlash Chrisette Michele went though for her decision to perform at Trump’s inauguration; the RnB singer ended up being dropped from her label and even cut off from some family members as a result of that choice. Kanye West by contrast has been actively and enthusiastically campaigning for Trump since 2016 but his actions have had basically no effect on his career whatsoever. Some would argue that Kanye’s bipolar disorder is to blame for his right wing outbursts and that that is the main reason people have been less critical of him, but if this were true then celebrities like Azealia Banks, who also holds reactionary views and who also struggles with her mental health, would have received the same patience and understanding that Kanye did. The reality however is that Banks, like Michele, was “cancelled” in response to her opinions, and this is because ultimately, whether the public approves of their politics or not, Black women are regarded as disposable either way.
It’s very possible that Trump elevated Dr. Immanuel to the status of one of “America’s Frontline Doctors” because he knows if the controversy gets out of hand he can easily cut off all ties with her and decry her as “crazy” so as to wash his hands of the situation entirely. If this is the case then one could argue he is relying as much on her authority as a doctor as he is her disposability as a Black woman to push his agenda. But regardless of whether we are being put on a pedestal or blamed for society’s failures, Black women deserve more than being used as a pawn in someone else’s PR campaign. And while this doesn’t change the fact the Dr. Immanuel’s actions were harmful and irresponsible, the public health intervention that we need right now is not going to happen through the harassment and shaming of Black women. Rather, we must look to the original source of the lies we have been told about Corona, and the systems that have allowed their spread in absence of any coherent plan to protect people from this disease. Outrage is valid, but the scapegoating of Black women isn’t and never will be.