Reflecting on bell hooks, love, and the COVID pandemic

I woke up this morning thinking bell hooks, a scholar whom I read often; a trailblazing thinker who passed away yesterday at the young age of 69.

This pandemic has been and continues to be scary and unsettling. Let me not diminish that by also saying that it has been an exciting time to be thinking sociologically (which I don't always do, especially when I'm worried about my aging parents). That means that I also woke up thinking two sociological thoughts: that both care and love — two things that we think of as feelings — are also actions, and they are vital links to our capacity to organize. They, themselves, are also organized. That is, we need care and love — in both feeling and action — to organize our society towards well-being; and, also, we can organize society in ways that increase our capacities for care and love.

bell hooks (1994) wrote that: “I conclude that many of us are motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us” (p. 1).

Many of us have been hurting these past two years — physically and financially. The hard part, as Durkheim, Mills, and Scott wrote about, is that to think sociologically we have to think beyond what is hurting us and think about how we can alleviate what hurts others in addition to what's hurting us. Our personal troubles are connected to public issues, which also means that we are not alone in our hurt (Mills). What we need now, more than any moment I've ever borne witness to, is solidarity.

Our path forward (or always, whether forward, backward, or staying in place) requires collective action and collective agreement as to what that action should be. It is evident to me as a sociologist observing this pandemic that

organization + solidarity = greater collective well-being

We've experienced a tremendous loss of life, having just surpassed 800,000 deaths from COVID-19. Both personally and politically, a lack of solidarity and the ensuing debates over masks and vaccines have significantly impacted our ability to "end" the pandemic and reduce the loss of life. Many people and politicians have put personal freedom above public health, with grave consequences.

Mills (1959) wrote that our biographies' accumulation of personal troubles produces public issues and, ultimately, history. This is why I am vaccinated, why I wear a mask: I wear it for you, for the collective you, for the "public issue" of the pandemic. When I wear a mask, I am contributing to the history of this moment, to the history of this society, this species. I want all of the people who aren't ill to stay that way; for everyone who is sick to heal; for those who can't work right now (something impacting my family, too) to be able to go back to work; for people to be able to grieve, eventually, together. So I wear a mask, stay at home as much as I can, and cultivate my solidarity — my love and care — for the collective so that we can all move forward from this.

There are other sociological lessons to be learned from this pandemic. As I've argued in the past few weeks, the treadmill of production (capitalism's love affair with perpetual growth) leads to exacerbated social inequality. It is, in fact, dependent upon structures of racism and a culture of race. To believe in the social construct of race (the culture) supports the system of inequality of racism (the structure). With its roots in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of the great chain of being, the idea of race (superiority and inferiority) has functioned to justify colonization and slavery. It has produced an ongoing system of white supremacy. The exploitation and oppression that have emerged from this system have continued in, for example, recent/present drug laws and immigration policy.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor — a Professor at Princeton University — wrote that:

“thousands of white Americans have also died from the [corona]virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality.”

She connects these "health disparities … [to] … markers of racial inequality [such] as mass incarceration or housing discrimination." Historical patterns of racial segregation have shaped, as Coates points out, class outcomes such as wealth accumulation. White Americans have accumulated small to large amounts of personal wealth (in part) through houses that lead to inheritances. At the same time, communities of color were redlined into poor neighborhoods and predatory loans (Coates). This has led to, among other things, increased exposures to environmental toxins — what sociologists call environmental racism — and other problematic health outcomes.

What is one of the worst things for your health? Stress. It floods your body with hormones, and those hormones can lead to health problems, such as high blood pressure. Pre-existing conditions such as these are proven to shape people's experiences with the coronavirus, leading to more significant dangers and graver outcomes. And, as Taylor notes (article above), it is one of the reasons that COVID disproportionately impacts people of color. Racism is very stressful indeed.

Many scholars are now exploring how stress and trauma — such as mass incarceration and migrating across a militarized U.S. border — are connected to the "diseases of Western civilization" (Galvez, Pollan). For Taylor (quoted above) and sociologist Minkoff-Zern, health outcomes cannot (solely) be explained through the lens of individual behavior, which is why educate-the-individual approaches often fail to alleviate such health disparities. If I asked you all: "do you know that broccoli is better for you than a Snickers bar?" you would all say, "yes." But does that mean that you have access to broccoli? And, if you are an essential employee, do you have time to cook the broccoli or a place to store it while at work? On-campus, just outside the classroom we used to sit in, you can buy a Snickers bar easily, right? That's why as sociologists, we focus not on the food choices individuals make but on how the food system is organized. We have to "pay attention to the role of corporate behavior, state regulation, and the political economy more generally in producing or allowing pollution, degraded food, and problematic built environments, irrespective of the 'choices' people make" (Guthman, p. 9). As Minkoff-Zern points out with the immigrant community she studied, the issue wasn't a lack of knowledge about good health choices; it was a lack of access to the resources that made those choices possible.

This is why we have seen other news headlines like Are You Rich Enough to Survive this Pandemic? and Vaccine Inequity Undermining Global Economic Recovery. Inequality leads to inevitable conflict and change (this can be bad or good). Let's return to the ideas of care and love; that is, let's focus on the potential for good. I just came across a new idea, found in a book called Doughnut Economics, in which an Oxford University economist argues for a new way to think about the economy: "the essence of the Doughnut is a social foundation of well-being that no one should fall below and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond." (p. 9). Instead of the linear model of the materials economy, it's cyclical (thus, shaped like a donut, or as the British call it, a doughnut), and it centers a "safe and just space for all" (Raworth).

This economic structure that Raworth constructs — remember, everything starts as an idea! — is built upon the idea of collective-well being and minimizes the possibilities for "dangerous dependencies" (Scott). Whether we are talking about environmental toxins that emerge from the materials economy or about how not getting vaccinated leads to more spread of COVID-19, it is clear that we are all interconnected and that there are currently significant dangers impacting our social relationships. Because sociologically, we are always in a relationship, even when we are strangers and worlds apart, or, at present, at least 6 feet apart.

Vaccine and mask mandates are examples of socially organizing love and care. So are policies that lead to building more bike lanes or policies that remove antibiotics from factory-farmed meat. These policies recognize the realities of this moment — of the dangers of this moment — and choose collective well-being rather than personal gain. If we move beyond the individual, that's where we find sociology and also love. As hooks wrote, "choosing love we also choose to live in community" (p.4)

Bell hooks concluded her essay on love with this statement:

“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.”

Put another way, "there's a lot of work love has to do in the world" (Solnit), and we can organize society to cultivate that love. I think, in particular, we need to expand our notion of what love is and who is enveloped by that love. Through social organization, love can reach both inside and beyond our families; love can reach us all.

And I conclude as always: please, take care of yourselves, and take care of each other.

Be well, Dr. Monica




I am a Sociology teacher at a Community College, writing these posts for my students, for my sanity, for anyone willing to think towards something better.

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Monica Edwards, PhD

Monica Edwards, PhD

I am a Sociology teacher at a Community College, writing these posts for my students, for my sanity, for anyone willing to think towards something better.

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