Viral Days

Bodies and Breath

All the ways we choke off lives

By Philip Alcabes | June 25, 2020
Enrique Shore / Alam
Enrique Shore / Alam

Amid the demonstrations following George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing police violence, a friend wrote me about the latest incidents and public health. “They’re piling up—or piling on,” he wrote. “Ever seen one public health crisis get swept up into another like this before?” With coronavirus still on the scene, he meant, the attacks by police officers on largely peaceful demonstrators seemed like an unprecedented one-two punch for the health of black communities. He’s right about the piling on. But I see these not as a set of new crises, but one more round in a long, unceasing battering.

My friend meant that those who see the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as unrelated to the black casualties of America’s coronavirus response (deficient, haphazard, inept) miss the forms taken by the persistent assault on the nation’s minority poor. Police violence is a prominent one: both violence toward black Americans and violence in response to protests against police violence. This form was already a well-known aspect of the determined immiseration of the health and welfare of poor communities—a public-health disaster that was exacerbated by coronavirus. Note: exacerbated, not “highlighted,” as liberal-leaning institutions have declared it to be. Life itself, the biological essence—the thing that, when it comes to white Americans, we refer to as “health” or “wellness”—life has never been allowed to mean as much for black Americans as for white Americans. Not in the view of policing, obviously, but also not in the eyes of medicine, public health, or social health. To say that Black Lives Matter is to take issue not only with police violence or police beat-downs, but with all the forms—with the entire orientation and action—of our public health apparatus. If you needed coronavirus to “highlight” that for you, you might now ask yourself whether, your avowed liberalism aside, you have been sanctioning the status quo all along.

The coronavirus death rate is high, but the appalling aspect is that it is exorbitantly high for black Americans—more than twice the rate for white Americans. That gap has to do with the persistence of the forms of slower violence toward black life: the structure of work in America, the virulence with which already rapacious American profit making takes advantage of African Americans, and the continuing residential segregation in much of the country that has long outlived Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights and Fair Housing acts.

In many cities, black (and Hispanic) Americans are more likely to be exposed to coronavirus because they work in “essential” occupations. But often these workers aren’t safe at home, either: both black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to live in crowded neighborhoods, putting them in harm’s way of contagion when they are off work. In New York City, the site of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak, eight of the 10 zip codes with the highest coronavirus death rates are predominantly black, Hispanic, or both; the least-affected neighborhoods include the wealthiest ones. If more than 120,000 Americans had died of coronavirus but all had been white and wealthy, would we still be debating what to do?

Another form of the assault on black communities’ public health is laxity of gun laws.  Thirty-four states don’t just refrain from constraining gun violence, but encourage it through so-called Stand Your Ground laws. Do not fall for the claim that this has to do with freedom or rights. It has to do with legalizing murder. Of the states with the highest rates of murder by firearm, all but two are Stand Your Ground states. It is not a matter of rights or constitutional interpretation that black men in the United States are 15 times more likely to be murdered with a firearm than are white men; it is a form of racial assault. For many years, Congress forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from even collecting data on gun violence.

Another form of policy violence is incarceration. When I teach about public health to undergraduates, I mention mass imprisonment as a form of illness in the body politic, no less than a disabling virus. Now that coronavirus is spreading rapidly in American prison systems, mass incarceration is a double deprivation of life. Michelle Alexander’s seminal The New Jim Crow was published a decade ago, and the number of Americans sentenced for drug offenses (Alexander’s main theme) has dropped slightly since then. But the total number of Americans behind bars (including youth detention, immigrant detention, jails, and prisons) has changed not at all.

This form of the public health disaster for black communities continues at a level that would be called epidemic if it were on the cultural radar: among those arrested by the police, black Americans are three-and-a-half times more likely to be detained in a jail than whites. Although sentencing and imprisonment of black Americans is less common than it was when Alexander wrote, black Americans are still incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans. As you read this, greater numbers of black Americans are serving time in state and federal prisons than white Americans, even though blacks amount to only 13 percent of the population, compared to more than 76 percent for non-Hispanic whites. And neither these statistics nor the news reports on coronavirus currently spreading in prisons can convey the manifest social ills that arise in communities where incarceration is commonplace: broken relationships, disrupted education, children raised while parents are behind bars, denial of housing and employment opportunities, to name the most prominent ones.

It doesn’t just feel bad to live in a neighborhood where violence, arrest, and the ills associated with the cycle of incarceration are common. A number of studies have shown that these exposures lead to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder for black and Hispanic Americans. The inability to step out of the way of obvious harm also assaults black Americans with toxic exposure, as Harriet Washington convincingly demonstrates in A Terrible Thing to Waste. The higher rate of lead poisoning for black children, and the consequent compromise in school performance, is the best known of the baleful public health results of the enduring confinement of black Americans to toxic zones. But, as Washington demonstrates, not the only one.

For many years, I thought that the denial of life to black Americans would be overcome once wealth was redistributed and American institutions had become fully just. I was a dutiful devotee of the moral approaches of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, a believer in inclusive discourse and its potential to effect norms that are just. Surely, our society could lift black lives to the health and longevity of white ones if all of us were to grab onto these ethics and act well. Mea culpa. Theory, I learned—any theory—has a way of getting its comeuppance from the experience of race in America. That our cultural and social history for the past 400 years is so tightly fused to the matter of how whiteness should be determined isn’t just our shame, it’s also our breath. Our life.

In America, race has always involved the control of bodies—prominent in the assumption by a policeman that not only may he kneel on the neck of a black man while being filmed, but do so long past the moment when the man’s life has expired. Not to discount the pain caused by verbal harassment, pictures of nooses, and more—but race wouldn’t feel so insuperable if it weren’t constantly tied to physical harm. Taken together, the failed response to coronavirus and the historical forms of assault on black Americans are a reminder of race’s physicality. It is exactly in taking control of another individual’s body that the experience of race, that generality, becomes an abuse of a particular individual—denying him access to air, denying her access to reproductive services, denying medical insurance by which to visit the doctor, denying the wherewithal to move out of a violent or toxic neighborhood. Or, lately, denying the means to stay out of a location where contagion is spreading fast, be it a neighborhood or a prison.

The dramatic differences in life chances for black and white Americans are built on policies and social forms. In the classroom (at least, back when there were classrooms), when we studied these underpinnings, my students sometimes use the word “racism.” I stop them. Back up, please, I say, and tell me who is harmed, how, and by whom. “Racism” sounds so much like a state of mind, and states of mind are easily denied. “Obliviousness and indifference … passed as not being racist,” Rebecca Solnit writes. Race isn’t a state of mind; it’s a state of body. Of breath, i.e., of not being able to breathe. Coronavirus, noose, chokehold, toxic air. The forms are diverse but, as my friend said, they do keep piling up.

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