In the aftermath of the Texas abortion ban, politicians and talking heads rushed to point out that the impact of the ban would disproportionately fall on low income Texans, particularly Black, Indigenous and People of Color. The repetition of this forecast was almost hypnotic, and the shameful statistics were uncontroversial; so much so that on Fox News, Penny Nance was able to spin the numbers to suggest that abortion rights comprised a genocide on the black community.
“Yes, it’s very real problem when only thirteen percent of population is having over forty percent of abortions,” she said. “There’s something very wrong. Pro-life women want to love Black women and care for them. The other side wants to exterminate them.”
It is not our aim here, (although it is tempting), to focus on the spine-chilling paternalism of a white woman claiming that by taking away Black women’s bodily autonomy she will “care for them.” Our interest in Nance’s statement is that it underscores a different problem: when we report identity-based disparities in outcomes without describing the legal, economic, historical, and social factors that contribute to them, this information can be interpreted in any direction.
Black scholars in the early nineteen hundreds proposed models of structural discrimination that explain and even predict the unjust differences between white and Black Americans. But systemic problems are seldom part of news reports on identity-based disparities. Instead the message ends with the statement itself: “this will hurt marginalized, low income, and BIPOC communities the most.”
It is reasonable to assume that acknowledging inequities without a plan of action in itself causes harm. Frequent exposure to anti-black, transphobic, and anti-immigrant messages in the media is associated with increased health and social problems in those same communities. Hearing overt and repeated messaging about terrible things happening to you– unsurprisingly–hurts. When your suffering is made public and at the same time is publicly ignored, there is but one conclusion to make. You don’t matter.
Let’s turn the focus to the invisible subject of the statement: the person who is not going to be affected by the abortion ban, (or voter restriction laws, or the economic fallout of Covid, etc, etc.)
The phantom clause attached to the back of “This will hurt (fill in any marginal identity) the most” is: but some people are going to be okay.
What is the psychological impact, we wonder, of silently receiving and sharing the message: “you will be okay,” not just once or twice, but repeatedly?
The first effect is to calm the nervous system, but it is much more powerful. This is what we firmly tell children in times of crisis. “Something terrible is happening, but you are going to be okay.” By locating the danger elsewhere, we create a bubble of protection around the child and the people they love. The danger is out there– outside the bubble. And on a primal level, you feel extra protected. You hunker down and stay out of harm’s way. You feel what it feels like to be protected most acutely when you become aware of the precarity of others.
The anti-choice movement seems to understand this dynamic better than progressives do. By extending the abortion ban in Texas to everyone who helps a person seeking an abortion, they are cynically betting that, in the intrapsychic battle between personal principles and safety, for most people most of the time, self preservation wins. Their strategy disincentivizes privileged progressives even further from fighting for a right that, in fact, they themselves will continue to exercise, by attacking them in a place where they might actually be hurt: their bank accounts.
On September 1, some people woke up in Texas to a positive pregnancy test and started praying that they were less than six weeks along. Many privileged Texans who identify as pro-choice, on the other hand, were horrified by the attack on legal abortion, but could soothe themselves by thinking “I can get the pill or go to another state” . Their experience of the ban corresponded with predictions they had been hearing all along: this won’t really affect people like you.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “What Structural Racism Really Means,” Jamelle Bouie argued, “We must remember, the problem of racism — of the denial of personhood and of the differential exposure to exploitation and death — will not be resolved by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.”
The fight for abortion was lead by brave and dedicated activists across racial and socioeconomic lines. Just as our Mexican neighbors rallied a movement to secure this basic human freedom, we find it slipping away. But instead of discussions about gender-based discrimination, systemic racism, or how overtuening Roe V, Wade secures Christian voters for the GOP, we hear same predictions of harm to already disadvantaged communities.
It is important to acknowledge inequality, but to what end? At this point, it seems that we are using vulnerable people as sacrificial lambs whose suffering will cause enough moral outrage to fuel a movement. But are progressives willing to step out of the protective bubble and give up the relief of not being directly threatened?