This essay approaches Blackness as a social contagion to examine the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence. By placing the COVID-19 deaths of Black people who are refused hospital treatment in critical conversation with police murders during the pandemic, this essay argues that a focus on social violence helps clarify how the same racial taxonomies are at play in producing these deadly outcomes. As such, the essay concludes with a broadening of the concept of police power to illustrate how, outside of the private and public political spheres, the amorphous nature of the social drives the demand for collective health and safety through the excision of Blackness as a contagion or coercive element.
In May 2020, there was a visceral collision of two seemingly disparate events: a global health pandemic and anti-Black police violence. The COVID-19 pandemic effectively shifted many forms of public, private, economic, and social life. The narrative surrounding the effects of mass stay-at-home orders, travel bans, and various work stoppages was one of universal impact. We are all in this together, and as such, the motto of the moment became “stay safe”—though what safety and precaution mean in the face of a viral contagion is not universally conferred. By March 2020, most Americans had felt the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. However, by April 2020, it was clear that the pandemic had racially distinct impacts. These impacts, I argue, were the result not of biological or behavioral health determinates but of structurally imposed violence. In the United States, rampant forms of anti-Asian violence began emerging.1 Furthermore, Black and Native peoples were significantly more likely to die from COVID-19,2 though again, I stress this was a product not of biological difference but, rather, of deeply entrenched social forces. In the face of a collective embrace of coming together to battle a general contagion, the structure of US antagonisms—genocide and slavery—emerged as pervasive and unrelenting. That is, Black and Native people are continuously overrepresented by death, and this reality sits at the core of what gives the American socius its functional coherence. The socius here evokes the use of the term by Gille Delueze and Félix Guattari whereas they describe it as a mode of social production and reproduction predicated on the coding of desire and fear.3 With respect to Blackness, the truth of this paradigmatic arrangement was brought closer into view following the mass uprisings that occurred in response to the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd. What in large part felt like a pandemic-induced cataclysm—when the unbearable constraints of global health uncertainty merged with the intensity of anti-Black state violence, leading people to retreat from their homes into the streets for months-long mass protests—was, in fact, indicative of a deeply entrenched relation to Blackness as a social contagion.
Despite the perception that COVID-19 was a once-in-a-century pandemic, what the frenzy of 2020 exposed was that the paradigmatic arrangements of Black life are conditioned by extreme forms of violence that are not analogous or equivalent to how non-Black peoples experience the world. Thus, in the face of mass illness and precarity, the position of Blackness was askew and separate from the collective experience of devastation felt by others. While the heightened proximity of Blackness to malaise and death was magnified, I argue that what appeared in May 2020 was an asymptotic view rather than a revelation of the truth of anti-Blackness. In other words, anti-Black contagion and police violence are only a partial view of the problem, and by focusing solely on the lived experiences of Black people, one risks losing sight of what anti-Blackness makes possible. That is, the structuring of Blackness is not singularly situated on the effects felt by Black people, though these effects are critical lenses, but also illuminates what forms of life and existence are fortified by Black social precarity and gratuitous death.
As Priscilla Wald has argued, contagion as a conceptual framework has “connoted danger or corruption” in both medical and philosophical orientations.4 Wald contends that “the circulation of disease and the circulation of ideas were material and experiential, even if not visible. Both displayed the power and danger of bodies in contact and demonstrated the simultaneous fragility and tenacity of social bonds.”5 Intensified focus on the potential invasion of one's individual bodily microbe by a potential external pathogen redoubles an investment in reifying the constitution of a collective social body that is understood as a communal safehold against invasion. To say this otherwise, the perceived or real threat of disease strengthens the demand for a collective force that can shield the individual from the vulnerability of wading in crisis alone. The biopolitical will to the right for life that undergirds the social bonds of humanness is brought closer into view when the threat of death is impending. The paradigmatic and permanent excising of nonhuman others from the realm of the Human is more visibly potent in moments of intensified crisis. COVID-19, as the product of a dangerous biological pathogen, exposes that the Human as a social body politic is strengthened by its possessive investment in marking the progressive nature of its existence through the exercise of violence.
In this essay, I explore how Blackness is conditioned as a social contagion and suggest it has less to do with immunology and more to do with the fortification of the social and the human body politic. Using Black COVID-19 mortalities and incidents of anti-Black police murders that coincided with the pandemic, I argue that the social is conditioned by a form of police power that deputizes the socius—here referring to everyday people, private and public entities, the state and its agents, as well as concepts and principles—to police the boundaries of Blackness. This boundary policing is not legislated or regulated by formalized institutional procedures (although it certainly can be) but is structurally sutured by a paradigm of humanness that is constituted by its capacity to produce and reproduce its other through violent exclusion. Thus, what it means to be and feel Human, in the midst of crisis, danger, and stasis, is constituted by a repetitiously violent relation to Blackness. As Black feminist social and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman argues, “The ‘Negro question’ as the social question arose primarily as it concerned the dangers posed by association and intimacy.”6 In addition to Hartman, Black feminist theory more generally demonstrates how Blackness is not a neutral or natural category, the insistence of which is rooted in the violence of slavery and the conditions of its emancipation. Rather, in the afterlife of slavery, Blackness continues to demarcate the distinctions between humanness and nonhumanness through the precarity of its social inclusion and exclusion, which demonstrates the impossibility of Black self-possession as a sovereign category under these conditions.
Black feminists have argued that introspections into Black suffering are not simply done as correctives to affirm Black humanity and personhood in the face of degradation. Instead, the work of theorists like Hartman, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Joy James, Christina Sharpe, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Hortense Spillers, and Sylvia Wynter places pressure on conceptual frameworks that assume that the Human is an essential and indispensable category. That is, the concern these Black feminist scholars and others explore is less tethered to faith in the potential fullness of Black humanity and more deeply invested in uncovering the anti-Black constitution of humanity itself. The question of what constitutes the Human is an ongoing relation of slavery that is predicated on the theft of Black flesh—corporeally, socially, and politically. That is to say, Black feminist analyses offer contexts to thinking the pretenses of Blackness beyond the event or the event horizon, such that Blackness is not figured as an identity category that is inflected by differing moments in time or political circumstances. Instead, Black feminist theory illuminates Blackness as a structural positionality oriented by a set of social relations that emerge across seemingly disparate contexts, which is to say, the racial implications of COVID-19 are preconditioned by paradigmatic arrangements that exceed the particularities of the virus and the events of 2020. The extenuating conditions of Blackness are located within the constituent elements of the Human, its social arrangements, and violence.
Blackness vis-à-vis the Crisis of Pandemic
On April 20, 2020, Deborah Gatewood died from COVID-19. Gatewood, a sixty-three-year-old Black woman, did not die from a natural progression of the disease, which has a mortality rate much higher than most common viral infections. Rather, she died from the force of anti-Blackness. On March 18, Gatewood, who was a health care worker, drove herself to the Beaumont Hospital emergency department to request a COVID-19 test after noticing she had worsening symptoms of the virus. She had been employed at this same hospital for over thirty-one years but was nevertheless denied a COVID-19 test and told to return home to rest. The next day, Gatewood returned to her place of employment seeking care and was turned away under the pretext that her symptoms were not severe enough. She was against prescribed rest and instructed to take cough syrup for her symptoms. By the end of March, and after four attempts to receive testing and treatment for COVID-19 symptoms, Gatewood lost consciousness in her home. Her daughter rushed her to another hospital, where it was confirmed that she indeed had COVID-19. Gatewood was immediately admitted and intubated, as she had developed bilateral pneumonia. She then suffered kidney failure, then heart failure, and passed away. At the time, Gatewood was just two years shy of retiring from Beaumont Hospital—the same institution that contributed to her death.7
While one cannot say for certain Gatewood would still be alive if Beaumont had admitted her on her first attempt to seek help, it is reasonable to assume that her chances of survival would have been much higher if her symptoms had been taken seriously from the beginning. Unfortunately, Gatewood's case is just one of many stories of Black people denied access to COVID-19 treatment in the midst of a global health pandemic.8 For example, nine-year-old Kimora Lynum died from COVID-19 after being turned away from a pediatric hospital in Gainesville, Florida.9 Fifty-year-old engineer Reginald Relf, who was experiencing difficulty breathing and a high temperature, was turned away from an urgent care clinic in a suburb of Chicago, although he was advised to quarantine based on his symptoms. He later died, while quarantining in his mother's basement.10 A Brooklyn middle school teacher, thirty-year-old Rana Zoe Mungin, died after being denied COVID-19 testing twice.11 Fifty-six-year-old Gary Fowler was turned away from three different Detroit area hospitals. He died from COVID-19 complications in his home; his father, seventy-six-year-old David Fowler, died six hours later, also from COVID-19.12 These are but a few examples of the experiences of Black people denied COVID-19 testing and treatment.
The peculiarity of Gatewood's story is that she was employed at the very same institution that refused to help her. Why was Gatewood treated like a perpetual stranger in a place where she had dedicated over three decades of her life? In response to her death, Beaumont Hospital released the following statement: “As patients come to Beaumont for care during this pandemic, we are doing everything we can to evaluate, triage and care for patients based on the information we know at the time. We grieve the loss of any patient to Covid-19 or any other illness.”13 The cold unfamiliarity that tracks through this statement contends that Gatewood was just like any other patient—nameless, universalizable, and generally grievable. The refusal to name Gatewood and her relation to this hospital is egregious by any moral standards. However, what Beaumont Hospital demonstrates in this statement, as well as through its treatment of Gatewood, is an insistence that care is a universally available standard, controlled by an isolated metric removed from human error, and that her life and death contain no unique qualities that distinguish her from any other person or patient. The obvious elided fact here is her employment and long-standing relationship with an institution that at the minimum should be able to name her and acknowledge her work beyond narrating her into erasure, as this statement attempts to do. Instead, the result is that her death is presented as though it were nothing but a natural result of life.
Beaumont Hospital, in this statement, relies on the fact that at the policy level there are no discrimination clauses against Black people that need addressing. Furthermore, the alleged violation to which they are implicitly responding is separate from the conditions of Gatewood's work. This vague statement refuses to speak to the question of whether race played a part in Gatewood being refused care on multiple occasions. However, any relational encounter or assessment of the biological status of a being, as in a value judgment of one's health or well-being, is a racial proclamation, which is to say, there are no conditions under which Beaumont Hospital could have avoided engaging Gatewood through a racial lens, as all bodies are interpolated racially. The refusal to address Blackness and its role in denying Gatewood treatment harkens back to a postslavery insistence that racial discrimination or prejudices emerge from and are reproduced through a combination of private or public domains, including laws, policies, contracts, and so forth. Consequently, a neutral racial sentimentality is superimposed onto all individuals and relations that exist under the jurisdiction of these corresponding public or private entities, unless readily discernible gross negligence allows individuals or particular internal factions to be blamed for discrimination or prejudice, which is to say, race is projected as a neutral or noninjurious categorization that becomes a factor only in cases where malicious intent is undeniably proven.
However, what constitutes racial harm when all policy and protocols are adhered to and no tractable racial biases are apparent? As Hartman argues, with respect to postemancipation civil rights legislation, “The definition of rights and the separation of public and private domains enabled equivalent right to substitute equal protections. However, the social looms above all else in facilitating the kinship of equality and exclusion.”14 What Hartman illustrates is that equivalence of rights at the level of law or, in the case of Beaumont Hospital, policy does not ensure equal protections, which can be understood in this circumstance as equal treatment. An exclusive focus on what is stated or implied in formal rules and regulations about the equivalent rights of all individuals elides the power of the social in conditioning Black exclusion. The social here means what Hartman describes as “an amorphous and mutable domain that overlaps the division of family, civil society, and the state; it is a crisis category that designates the slippage of the public and the private and the ‘intrusion’ of the bodily—health, hunger, and reproduction—into public space of politics.”15 Thus, malicious intent is not an essential determinate either of Black exclusion or of Gatewood's repeated denial of COVID-19 treatment. Instead, the social, which confers value and meaning onto “physical differences, corporeal impulses, and racial feelings,” sutures both conscious and preconscious consensus making that subtends proximations of Blackness to constant externally imposed assessment and valuation.16 The hospital is essentially asking, How much is the Black like us? That is, in the case of Gatewood, does the Black have the capacity to be susceptible to a form of suffering that binds the socius together by a body politic of sameness and potential? Sameness here is the equivalent human capacity to succumb to disease, and potential is the ability of the social body to persevere beyond and survive the crisis of COVID-19.
The assumption that the health implications of the pandemic can be assessed by attuning analysis to the impacts of disease on the human organism of any population, particularly a racialized population, isolates conditions and distinction at the level of pain, suffering, mortality, and possibility as natural prescriptions of immutable racial terms. A New York Times article that discusses the increased number of Black people who have died after being denied COVID-19 testing and treatment states that “Americans of all races may have experienced less than ideal care,” given the current pandemic.17 However, the article does not provide evidence to support similar hospital experiences regardless of race. Additionally, the article asserts, “Black people are more likely to suffer from diabetes, hypertension and other underlying conditions that make COVID-19 particularly fatal. So, should providers misinterpret or ignore coronavirus symptoms in black patients, there is a higher likelihood that the results could be grave, experts say.”18 Preexisting conditions in this respect are positioned as separate from or explanatory of the racial disparities in COVID-19 complications and mortality. This viewpoint operates on a centuries-old perception “that people of different races suffer from peculiar diseases and experience common diseases differently.”19 However, Black feminist legal theorist Dorothy Roberts provides evidence to the contrary, arguing that “human genetic diversity occurs in a continuum that cannot be partitioned by clear boundaries and that crosses what are commonly considered racial lines.”20 This argument holds that racial science, or the use of race in science, replicates the social violence of racialization that (re)produces Blackness as an unremarkable and natural condition, which also served as a justification for slavery and for the adverse social conditions that have existed in the afterlife of emancipation.21 Furthermore, investigating why Black people may suffer from “diabetes, hypertension, and other underlying conditions” necessitates a critical response that opposes reproducing the racist belief that “there is something innate in racial minorities that predisposes them to disease and early death.”22 That is, the medical and social violence responsible for exacerbating Black COVID-19 deaths is also implicated in the proliferation of other long-term diseases that are commonly experienced by Black people. Thus, preexisting conditions do not justify current racial disparities but exemplify why the structural nature of the problem demands further investigation.
What the death of Gatewood demonstrates goes beyond a concern with immunological factors of mortality and morbidity and instead brings attention to the opacity of the social structures of Black life and death. Thus, the hypersusceptibility of Black people to contracting and dying from COVID-19 should not be attributed to biological determinates, nor should race when understood as biological fact be used to suture the explanation of cause and effect. As Black feminist science historian Evelynn M. Hammonds argues, “Rather the appeal of a story that links race to medical and scientific progress is in the way in which it naturalizes the social order in a racially stratified society such as ours.”23 Thus, the position taken here, with respect to Black feminist theory, resists the desire to view COVID-19 as carrying a relational human impact across race, with isolatable biological divergences, that binds everyone together in similar crisis. Instead, I think it is more productive to assess the social status of Blackness across different phenomena, to demonstrate the impossibilities of cross-racial relational analyses with respect to death and the social conditions of dying.
In “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics,” Axelle Karera interrogates discourses of disaster and crisis in relation to perceptions of ecological disaster. Karera contends that analyses of the immense of disaster are predicated on an insistence on collectivity that is bolstered by racial erasure. Thus, the discussion of the Anthropocene by many theorists presupposes a Human or ecological teleological progression, together with threats of demise that ahistorically subsume Blackness into a collective form of being that is central to Black suffering. Karera argues that, “insofar as the constant recognition of our existential interdependency cannot substantially challenge the many forms of segregations on the steady rise in our current times, it seems to me that assuming the inevitability of our ontological entanglement may need some re-thinking.”24 After citing the work of Fred Moten in relation to what she calls “relationality's inability to maintain its ethical currency when faced with the extended rupture blackness sustains on ethics,” Karera continues, “In other words, relationality is inherently not only a position that the black cannot afford or even claim. The structure of relationality is essentially the condition for the possibility of their enslavement. I wonder, therefore, whether our naïve reliance on a type of inherent co-dependence has recently done more harm than good—that is to say, has instead worked to obstruct the very possibility of a positive transformation of our ethical sensibilities.”25 According to Karera, the linking of structural relationality to the conditions of slavery is key. For Blackness, segregation, interdependency, and slavery are relational rather than legally imposed. As such, the interdependence thesis (that we are all in this together) overshadows how the social structuring of Black life and death makes the collective “we” a structurally impossible equivalency, despite the affective and emotional desire for such to be true. Integration also constitutes a problem of relationality or the lack thereof. More to the point, the constitution of “we” is a form of violence that makes the particularities of Black suffering indiscernible under the auspices of equal rights and liberties in private and public spaces. In this respect, Hartman contends that “a slippage between race and status can be detected in the uncertain identification of the source of black degradation,” where the locus of suffering is frequently underscored because of the insistence on perceiving the problem as the lack of relational congruency across races with respect to specific phenomenon like global sickness.26 Rather, the conditions of suffering must be scaled outward, rather than inward with a narrow focus on pandemic and disease, to address the ethical stakes at the heart of Black death. Thus, employing Karera's “positive transformation of our ethical sensibilities” to address the conditions of Gatewood's death requires an acknowledgment of negligence on the part of Beaumont Hospital, together with a cognitive mapping of how care, protection, and safety as conceptual frameworks isolate Blackness as an excisable contagion that is subjected to gratuitous violence that so often leads to spectacularized or muted death. By muted death, I mean forms of death produced by anti-Blackness that go unseen, unaccounted for, or unknown.
Anti-Blackness and COVID-19 cannot be addressed by simply doing race better. Instead, to address the issue of incongruent life potentials, one must ask what is Blackness. A racialized response to the fear of a deadly pandemic must simultaneously contend with the general Black fear of death resulting from extenuating circumstances not linked to a specific cause, like COVID-19, but predisposed by the social organization—which is to say, the structural positioning—of the world. Within the crisis, forms of social segregation, or violent integration, are amplified by the intensified focus on the pandemic, but these conditions preexist the crisis itself. As such, the concern is not solely with racialized exclusion from hospitals but with a critical concern with excisions from all spaces where Blackness is deemed an intrusion, or where the collective order of things is defined and produced through the repetitious embrace and removal of Blackness as an object of the will of others.
Police Power and Social Death
I conclude by discussing police violence and its relationship to the forms of exclusion demonstrated in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, rather than extending a conversation about why non-Black people are not turned away from hospitals in the same manner as Black people, and to resist the lure of perceiving cross-racial analysis as providing a clarifying lens to explain violence, I instead turn to thinking Black death across seemingly distinct registers. To do this, I first return to the concept of the social.
The social, for political philosophers like Hannah Arendt, entails a prepolitical space that Man inhabits prior to being constituted by the political.27 Arendt argues that in this sense the social is an unregulated space. However, Hartman contends that slavery exposes the social as where “everyday practices . . . occur in the default of the political, in the absence of the rights of man or the assurances of the self-possessed individual, and perhaps even with a ‘person,’ in the usual meaning of the term.”28 While Arendt fears the rise of the social as a sphere of unregulated chaos, this fear is racially configured. For the Black, the social, and specifically social death, has constituted its constitutive relational distinction from all other being. It is a structure of ontological captivity. That is, the Black is locked in an objective relationship with political subjects whose political ontological coherence is tethered to anti-Black subjection as “the basis of both individuation and collective security.”29 Social death is constituted by the Black possessing, as Frantz Fanon has argued, no ontological resistance in the face of the racial anxiety.30 This (re)produces Blackness as a permanent immutable anxiety controlled by the will, actions, intents, and desires of individual and collective drives for health, safety, and security from the opacity of Blackness.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who—aided by the inaction of other officers—lodged his knee into Floyd's neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, until Floyd lost consciousness, while bystanders looked on in horror. Unlike most police killings of Black people, this incident was recorded.31 During the video, one can hear Floyd exclaiming that he is in pain and calling out for his mother, whereupon Chauvin simply tells him to “stop talking, stop yelling.”32
The morning after Floyd's murder, the Minneapolis Police Department released a statement with the subheading “Man Dies after Medical Incident during Police Interaction.”33 The statement reads, in part: “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.” Like the Beaumont Hospital statement, the Minneapolis Police Department statement attributes the death of Floyd to extenuating medical factors, with no acknowledgment of fault. The statement reads as if Floyd died from natural causes, implying that there is an unquestionable unhealthfulness of being Black. This rhetorical strategy naturalizes Black death as inconsequential. Yet, no direct attention is given to the question of why the Black is frequently located at the center of functional or dysfunctional performances of duties. Though one should not expect the police to indict themselves, as antagonizing Blackness is essential to modern policing, the erasure of fault in the statement mirrors a structurally imposed refusal to account for Black death as constituted relationally to other beings and things that exist outside of Blackness.34 In other words, Black death has been pathologically rendered the result of being Black as a biological determinant.
The vast majority of those who watched the video of the murder stridently disagreed with the assessment by the police. The video was shared across social media and sparked global protests. The police department responded to the resulting mass uprisings by firing the officers involved, and Chauvin was subsequently arraigned on charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and third-degree murder. The charge of third-degree murder was later dismissed by a Hennepin County judge.35 The global response to Floyd's murder, I argue, was a response to his individual death as well as to centuries of Black death, exacerbated by an ongoing pandemic. During a period when normal modes of social interaction have been significantly disrupted (by compulsory mask wearing, social distancing, work stoppages, mass stay-at-home orders, etc.), anti-Blackness remained unrelenting. As the world turned its attention to combating a virus, Black life was not given a moratorium. Instead, news of Black death has continued to intensify, and in addition to Black people dying from COVID-19 at high rates, legal and extralegal murders have continued unabated.
For instance, just prior to the beginning of the pandemic, Ahmaud Arbery, while out for a jog, was shot and murdered by three white vigilantes, one of whom was a former police officer. Arbery was accosted by two of the men while a third stood watch and recorded the attack, and the men were not indicted until the case received public attention and concern.36 On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a health care worker, was shot in her home after officers in plain clothes broke into her apartment with a no-knock warrant seeking the arrest of an ex-boyfriend of Taylor who falsely listed her apartment as his current residence.37 On May 3, Nina Pop, a Black transgender woman, was found stabbed to death in her apartment in Missouri,38 and two days after George Floyd's murder, Tony McDade, a Black transgender man, was killed by Tallahassee police—though neither of the latter two cases received as much attention as those of recent deaths of Black cis-heterosexuals like Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor.39 These deaths are simply a few of the many that have continued to occur in the shadow of the global pandemic.
Rather than exploring these murders through an assessment of protocols, procedures, and morals to locate misconduct or argue for their exceptionality, instead police power must be contended with as a broader framework that subjugates the Black under the guise of public safety and health. The police are the police, but so are everyday political subjects. I chose to name these deaths not to itemize them as data but to scale horizontally to assess how Black death is not an isolated occurrence but happens in relation. As opposed to announcing a scandal by scaling vertically to hold Black death accountable to or in tension with non-Black life/death, or to examine the particular “violated” protocols of the singular incident, thinking across Blackness instead provides a more expansive view of the problem.
Much like the social, police power has commonly been defined amorphously. Bryan Wagner argues that early definitions of police power were not incorporated into the American ethos until the eighteenth century. Wagner wrote that “police power is about self-defense, and this is why so many of the laws implemented under its authority employ enumeration, rather than deduction, to define their range.” Furthermore, “Police power remains opposed to generalizations on the grounds that petitions to principle place inappropriate limits on its autonomy.”40 The power of the police, in its foundational prescriptions, was not attached to police departments as they exist today. Rather, police power was enunciated as “the state's right and duty to dispose of threats to public welfare” in helping maintain racial taxonomies. What constitutes the state are its apparatuses and appendages, as well as its recognized political subjects. Thus, the reassurance of the security of the collective, against the anxiety of contagion, reifies the same racial taxonomies that produce police power in its first emergences: slave codes or, more specifically, the subjection of Blackness to the will of the master or the non-Black other. As Hartman has argued, “Time of slavery persists in this interminable awaiting—that is, awaiting freedom and longing for a way of undoing the past.”41 How one locates the unreconciled past of slavery in the present is through the persistent absence of Black ontological resistance. That is, there is no Black politic that can stave off Black death without the recognition, acknowledgment, and acceptance of this politic from non-Black subjects. Furthermore, as Black theory pushes to articulate an interconnectivity of Black death across space and time, the claims are repeatedly reduced as hyperbolic, yet the deaths and the denial of any intentional quality continue.
In this sense, Hartman argues that police power exceeds the practices of the police and accounts for a drive “to protect the health and morality of the population” through “the isolation of blacks” that is not specific to disease.42 Police power represents an illogical repetition of Black death in gratuity and a witnessing of these deaths as excessive raw materials that reify beliefs of race as biological while obscuring the social and political conditions of its construction. Thus, I argue that the Human understands itself as healthful and capable of surviving crisis through the proliferation of Blackness as a biological referent of unhealthfulness and incapacitation. When the world feels uncertain, this anxiety is assuaged through the catharsis of subjugating or witnessing the suffering of Black people. This is the condition of social death. Redress exceeds the purview of reforming the police or hospitals but must address why the central orbiting mechanism of modernity has included the violent dispossession and theft of Black life and bodies.
This question has become a central thesis in many Black feminist projects. Rather than asserting that one theorist or theory possesses the “answer,” it is critical to note that thought is moving toward approaching Blackness, outside of the question of identity, and toward philosophical interpretations of its emergence, subjugation, and suffering. Denise Feirrera da Silva has posed this theoretical concern by attuning to the multiple registers of Black death as a Black feminist poethics: “Blackness is available to a Black Feminist poethics, as it charts a terrain by asking Black Feminist Critique to review its Categories, rearrange its project, and interrogate the very premise of its craft, without any guarantees that the craft itself will survive the exercise.”43
Accounting for a racial calculus that functions on the illogical deaths of Black people necessitates a reengagement with how relationality is understood and mapped. Thus, while COVID-19, the police, and other potential violating circumstances can, in theory, harm everyone, the overrepresentation of Blackness in sites of suffering demands a shifted focus. The deaths of Gatewood and Floyd, as well as Lynum, the Fowlers, Mungin, Relf, Arbery, Taylor, Pop, and McDade, demonstrate a relationality at the level of the illogical status of violence rather than at the level of Black subject identity. That is, though these people represent differing intersections of Black identity, the conditions of their deaths expose the fissures of thinking death as singularity. By this I mean that examining these deaths in reference to an incident as a particularized scene of violence simply reinscribes the political ethics of public or private regulation and reform as what can remedy these harms. However, attuning critical analysis to the social allows one to consider how Black people die outside of the state, law, policy, or identifiable malicious intent, and their deaths are frequently viewed as if they were the result of an innate, death-bound automation. Rather, the social relations that guide the desire for collective sensibility and Human identity wager Blackness as a social contagion that is affectively perceived as no longer an object qua subject. Instead, it must be understood that holding the Black relational to the “we” is the prepolitical—read: social—logic of slavery.
For similar stories, see Grubbs, “Health Care System Has the Black Community in a Choke Hold.”
For a discussion of how racial difference and disease were used as justifications for slavery, segregation, and other postslavery racist practices, see ibid.
Despite the growing number of videos documenting police killings, I believe it is important to remember that most of these incidents are not documented and circulated as public evidence.
For more on the modern history of policing, see Wagner, Disturbing the Peace.