Our Current Narratives and Institutions Fuel Black Disposability — Addressing Anti-blackness is the Way Out

By Anne Price, President

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On the heels of Ahmaud Aubrey’s and Breonna Taylors’ deaths, and right before George Floyd, Christian Cooper and an outpour of protests across our nation, I had the opportunity to moderate a conversation about racism in America with historian and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.

The irony does not escape me.

Kendi notes that it “is just devastating to know that on the one hand, we are being disproportionately infected and killed by the coronavirus, and that on the other hand, we’re disproportionately infected and killed by the virus of racism.”

Amid a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 21,000 Black people, at a rate nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population, the events of the past week have exposed the many ways in which Black people are seen as a threat to white Americans, and are policed to keep us in a place of servitude and control. There is little question that the police are a tool used to keep Black power and people in check.

Ahmaud Aubrey was chased down by two white vigilantes and viciously murdered by former police men for jogging in his neighborhood.

In Central Park, a white woman weaponized her racist power — and exposed the ugly persistence of a centuries-old idea that white womanhood must be protected, an idea that has long been used as a justification for racist violence against Black people, particularly Black men. She called 911 on a Black man who asked her to leash her dog, and made a false accusation about him as a dangerous threat.

On the same day, George Floyd was brutally killed by the Minneapolis Police over a report of a $20 counterfeit bill.

We have seen this all before and we will see it again and again and again. Unless we choose to stop it. It is time we consider proposals that defund the police and implement community alternatives to policing.

COVID-19 has exposed how the criminal legal system, a lack of access to quality health care, and an economy that is propped up by unchecked corporate power are mutually reinforcing. But as the pandemic continues to unfold, we are getting a front row seat to a mainstay of American history: the devaluation and disposability of Black life. If our society can dehumanize and devalue Black people it can just as easily rationalize their marginalized existence and even their deaths.

From reports that some Black people who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms are being denied medical treatment and sent home without testing, to their overrepresentation in jobs that put them at greater risk of exposure to the virus and represent some of the most devalued work, the failure of government decision-makers to protect the lives of Black people — whether it is from a deadly virus or violence from the police — has become painfully clear.

Recognizing the gravity of this moment, we can no longer shy away from naming the role that racism — specifically anti-blackness — plays in shaping life outcomes. We must not only amplify the structural inequalities at work and their underlying root causes, but also work together across issues and tackle inequities at their intersections.

We must hold fast in rejecting narratives that place the blame on Black people for their illnesses and deaths based on bad habits, poor decisions, and perceived criminality. These narratives provide a rationale for both disinvesting in Black people and their communities and also for punitive policies.

Scholar Vesla Mae Weaver points out that Black criminality is one of the most enduring racial stereotypes, one of the central justifications for Black exclusion, and that Black citizenship has always been bound by claims of criminality. Racist ideas about Black people in the face of a health crisis are not without historic precedent. Even as the 1918 pandemic hit Chicago, public health officials and journalists blamed Black people for the outbreak. They not only characterized Black people as biologically inferior and their neighborhoods as disease ridden, but also placed responsibility on Black people for the racial antagonism towards them. The narratives and stories that begin to take hold about Black people today will significantly impact how policy solutions are shaped and implemented in a recovery. We must work in coalition to focus on narrative change with an intentional focus on countering anti-blackness.

In his latest book, How to be an Anti-Racist, Dr. Kendi offers a new and compelling way to think about race. He argues that racist ideas provide the justification for racist policies which lead to racial inequities.

And the purpose of racist ideas is to get people to do nothing.

The magnitude of this moment calls for us to push ahead with urgency, courage, and greater intention to face our nation’s racist history. The reality of this moment, of the pain and deep injustice on display, is almost too much to bear. We must persist in following action with investment and lasting systemic change. And we must imagine America anew, building a better future for Black people and all Americans.

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