Prominent Black scholars from around the world virtually gathered on April 29 to discuss how COVID-19 and state-mandated quarantine measures perpetuate and escalate global inequalities during this historical moment.
The forum called, “We Can’t Breathe: Global Antiblackness & the Racial Necropolitics of COVID-19,” was hosted by the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Department of Black Studies and the Center for Black Studies Research, and comes at a crucial time when reports show Black people are disproportionately being discriminated against in communities around the world.
In the U.S., new reports arrive daily reflecting how African Americans in major cities are dying of COVID-19 at much higher rates compared to other racial groups of the same age. Meanwhile, in China, Kenyan Chinese residents are currently being evicted from their homes and denied access to basic essential services. In addition, Somalia and many other impoverished African countries have reported serious healthcare issues such as access to ventilators and face masks.
Major injustices towards Black communities around the world represent a much larger issue of “racial necropolitics,” said the panelists. Necropolitics describes the flow of power and knowledge that determines who and how one can die.
Dr. Terrance Wooten, a professor in the UCSB Department of Black Studies, pointed out how COVID-19 reveals the inner necropolitics of American society. Referring to the racial aspect of incarceration, he argued, “Prisons have become containers of not only Black life, but also Black death.” The government’s willingness to ignore the loss of life COVID-19 has wrecked upon those incarcerated reveals the death-driven logic of a racist society.
Instead of releasing non-violent inmates in order to avoid incubating the disease in highly unhygienic and cramped spaces, the U.S. government is more focused on maintaining the boundary between civilian and supposed criminal, so that death is kept within confined walls, not contaminating mainstream society.
Dr. Wooten reminded us that, in addition, “homelessness is not a deracialized category,” noting how Black and Brown communities are most affected by poverty and homelessness. Despite the large amount of hotel rooms vacant and available, a majority of homeless people are still being moved into crowded shelters where they are more likely to catch and spread the disease.
Dr. Raquel L. de Souza, a researcher at the University of Bahia, Brazil, remarked that less than a day ago, the president of Brazil, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, dismissed news that the death toll had reached over 5,000 in Brazil. For Dr. Souza, right-wing politicians like Bolsonaro are modern Pontius Pilates, “washing their hands of the responsibility” for the death of innumerable, innocent people.
The idea of washing hands, Dr. Wooten pointed out, is also impossible for some Black communities in the U.S. who don’t even have access to clean water. Directives like “go wash your hands,” or “wear a mask in public,” ignore the racial reality that many Black and poor people face: insufficient access to clean water, lack of economic means, or living space to social distance, and the inability to wear a mask safely due to racial profiling.
When we hear in popular discourse that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” referring to the shutdown of our national economy and quarantine as the cure, the phrase is often paired with other social Darwinist arguments like ensuring the health of our economy over the elderly or averting turning into a welfare state.
Statements like this pose a crucial question: Who exactly is this cure hurting the most and who is this disease hitting the hardest? A majority of the people who work in essential services are Black and marginalized groups. If the economy is re-opened too soon, that would only put these essential workers, from doctors to grocery store workers, at great risk, Dr. Wooten suggests. In the time of COVID-19, we see how Black blood becomes the oil that keeps the engine of American capitalism running, as Dr. Wooten put it.
A member of the audience asked the panel of scholars what it says about the nature of protest in America when Black people peacefully protest against police brutality, yet face tear gas and rubber bullets, whereas white people protest and endanger the lives of the physically vulnerable by breaking social distance, yet receive the blessing of the president.
Dr. Wooten’s response came as a surprise. He answered that what is happening right now in this country says more about the nature of a democratic state than the nature and efficacy of protest itself. American democracy and electoral politics do not support Black people because they were not made with Black people in mind.
The title of the colloquium, “We Can’t Breathe,” is a phrase that originates from the Black Lives Matter movement in reference to choking tactics used by police members to subdue Black people. But now, this phrase gains new sinister meaning in the age of COVID-19.