Black Thought as Essential Work

COVID-19 has changed everything. National economies have slowed, millions have lost jobs, and hundreds of thousands have sickened and died (a little more than 700,000 globally as of August 5, 2020). As much as things have been upended, the pandemic has brought clarity about politics, values, vulnerabilities, and as so many have noted, made all too clear those very particular susceptibilities in a given society or locale. I spend much of my time thinking about South Africa—site of my research for more than two decades. But living in the US I have spent almost as much time thinking about the place I call home. In each, the question of the moment, surely, is the degree to which a pandemic merely exposes underlying structural instabilities or, in so doing, makes possible their repair; better still a complete and radical transformation of the status quo.

South Africans, and especially Black and poor South Africans, living in informal settlements or remote rural outposts given to overcrowding and limited services, respectively, are weathering COVID-19 with the strictest of stay-at-home orders. The necessary demand that people remain at home has been met with an extraordinary level of compliance on the part of those for whom lockdown is most challenging—those living in corrugated iron shacks, without running water, heat, or insulation in the dead of winter—and given the state’s heavy-handedness in its execution of those orders. Activists have been explicit about the distinct and disparate conditions of lockdown for Black and white and the ways in which such differences signal much longer legacies of racism and white supremacy, segregation, and deprivation that South Africa more than twenty-five years since democratization cannot shake. The contrasts are stark and remind me of the fact that South Africa and the US share parallel histories of indigenous genocide, slavery, and settler colonialism to yield racial orders in which Black and Brown people have been deprived of land, livelihood, and dignity for centuries.

The continuities between these two places and the continuities within their separate histories are far from linear, but South Africa and the US nevertheless afford a laser view of the long-term effects of state racism and violence. Which brings me to the events of this spring and summer.

In the City of Minneapolis on May 25, George Floyd died at the hands of Derek Chauvin during an interminable 8 minutes and 46 seconds. What was different about Floyd’s death; different from so many others before him whether Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, or Elijah McClain? That question is difficult to answer because it requires a clear sense of the dynamics of protest, of the cumulative effort of the crowd, of the tipping point at which righteous anger over police brutality or racially-motivated vigilantism turns into rightful action. For all that is unanswerable about that singular question—a question that lies at the heart of theories of social movements and revolution—I would argue that in part the answer lies in the fact of COVID-19. If the world was upended in the early months of coronavirus spread from China to Iran to Italy, to Europe more broadly, across the Atlantic and into the Americas (North and South), and then southward into the African continent and South Asia; the terms of political debate were upended too. And by this I mean that very suddenly taking a knee was no longer an outrage, but an act of politicians, sports team owners, and coaches; Black Lives Matter signs mushroomed on sedate suburban lawns; while CEOs and University Presidents drafted anti-racism charters; and just as BLM street murals appeared in Washington DC, Chicago, New York, Raleigh, and Durham; the removal of statues to the confederacy happened in the dark of night all across these United States.

It is my sense then that the period between mid to late March when states across the US declared stay-at-home orders and fully two months later when George Floyd’s death reignited the energies of the Movement for Black Lives drawing strength not only from the heart of the Movement but also from an ever-growing network of allies; this two-month period—this pre-interregnum of sorts—was essential to the vigor, energy, and courage with which people took to the streets in the week and then many weeks following George Floyd’s death.

Perhaps it was inevitable that as the pandemic converged with extant social and political conditions that the death of George Floyd—a death I regard as murder—in dominating news headlines, radio waves, and Twitter feeds should force a national conversation about America’s “original sin,” about police brutality, and that long continuous if not always even arc between the time of slavery and the present of its afterlives.

In the background of highly visible and often performative acts of knee taking, street mural painting, and public statement making about “enough is enough” or “never again,” Black and Brown people remained over-represented in the ranks of essential workers and those who succumbed in ever-greater numbers to COVID-19 and even death. Arguably, the very fact of their vulnerability for the work many do, the poverty in which many live, the overcrowding in inter-generational homes, and the invisibilization of the essential work many continued to fulfill—in supermarkets, on public transport, in assisted living facilities, in hospitals—spoke of an inverse relationship between those most of us depend upon and the limited value placed on the kinds of people and the kinds of work now regarded as essential.

This word, “essential,” is the starting point for a seminar I will be offering this Fall that examines the Black Radical Tradition. Its central claim is that Black study is “essential work”! And by that I mean the following: Knowing how to read protest less as the expression of an angry crowd and more so as a principle of courage and care of self and others—“an act of political warfare” as Lorde famously noted—is more critical than ever to a full and honest reckoning with our past. The same is true of Ruth Gilmore’s trenchant claim that racism is the “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” In simpler language Gilmore, the scholar of carcerality and committed abolitionist, suggests that people of color die earlier and more often than white people for reasons both individual and structural, but primarily structural. That it is essential to move beyond contentious claims about “our” history as conveyed in monuments to the confederacy and that removing them begins to expose how they actually stand in for dishonest historical revision—a revision in dire need of revision!

I am hoping that AAAS 503S, which is entitled “The Black Radical Tradition: COVID-19, #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd, and the Movement for Black Lives,” will bring those who participate a clearer sense of the complexities, through-lines, disjunctures, and persistence of racism across the longue durée. I hope too we will all come out on the other side of the seminar, the Fall term, and indeed the pandemic better equipped to build a long overdue racially just society. As we say in South Africa: “A Luta Continua” (the struggle continues)!

The Fires Burning Now

Charlie Thompson“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The fires James Baldwin predicted in his letter to his nephew are burning now.  At this writing, the fires of love, which inspire protesters to march for lynched neighbors, still burn brighter than literal fires kindled in anger when property receives more protection than black and brown lives.  We cannot say how this will end.   But we can say when these sparks of righteous anger first ignited on this soil.  It was 1619, when American slavery began.

Slavery was born of agriculture.  It grew because European-American planters allowed their lust for property, profits, and power to obscure the costs of people suffering under whips and chains.  The nation’s founders refused to countenance an agriculture where human rights could exist alongside their freedom to own property.  The Constitution enshrined the three-fifths-of-a-person clause.  When reform threatened them, the Confederacy, led by slaveholders, rebelled against the U.S. government, fighting to own people forced to work their fields.  After the South lost, the KKK, Jim Crow, and vagrancy laws emerged to resupply postwar agriculture with human bodies.  Slavery lived on, even in defeat, like a snake chopped into pieces whose head continued to bite.  Confederate statues appeared in the Twentieth Century, harkening back to a cause some named noble.  The statues exist now because some authorities agreed, tacitly at least, that the rebels did in fact have a cause – one worth memorializing.

After 400 years, agriculture refuses to wean itself from human oppression.  Only three years ago, federal courts prosecuted an agricultural slavery case in Florida, one of a long chain of cases uncovered by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.  We know that George Floyd and other murdered African American men and women died in cities: Minneapolis, Louisville, Ferguson, Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and on and on.  But the roots of their oppression reach back to fields where their ancestors worked and suffered.  Mr. Floyd’s body was taken back to rural Raeford, North Carolina for visitation for a reason.  Migrating to American cities has rarely been a release from anything.

Instead, slavery’s serpent has regrown a body, and our entire nation is entwined.   Nowhere is this more apparent than in agriculture.  Witness the oppression of workers – now called essential – forced to choose between their family’s hunger or to work in COVID-19 riddled meat processing plants. This sickening of agricultural workers makes a mockery of “food security.”   Powerlessness and even torture remain an agricultural reality.  Farmworker housing across the nation squeezes people into crowded, germ-ridden quarters, where the coronavirus has sickened many – all to pick our berries and lettuce and tomatoes.  In the midst of a global pandemic, people are dying in factories and fields to grow, harvest and process our food.

There are unquestionable ethical reasons to resist oppressing people who produce another’s sustenance.  Because we all ingest food into our bodies, we can’t possibly say this is somebody else’s fight.  Hearkening back four centuries helps us understand the beginning of the oppression and its universality.  The fires of justice are ours to tend from here on.

This is Not a Normal Moment

The last thing I wrote before COVID turned our world upside down was an essay for the Washington Post about US Soccer’s bizarre claim that the FIFA World Champions don’t deserve equal pay because women aren’t as good at sports as men.  Really, their own federation said this.  About Megan Rapinoe.  About Alex Morgan.  About Crystal Dunn.  In a legal brief they actually filed in a case about equal pay.  It wasn’t even necessary—the federation had other (doctrinally sound and politically safe) arguments if they really wanted to stiff the girls.  As I conceived the piece, I felt like Elizabeth Barrett Browning riffing on love except this was on error: let me count the ways.

On the day I submitted it for consideration, the newspapers were just beginning to be filled with COVID -related news and analysis.  Because the piece had nothing at all to do with COVID, I thought that it might not place.  I also thought that would be the right call.  Almost all of my work is of the “law and” sort – hence my connection to Kenan – and in this period, a lot of that is “law and sex in sport.”  But as others correctly noted in early March, even though sport – including women’s sport – produces all kinds of social goods, in an existential moment it’s just not that important.  Coach K led as he often does, hitting the airwaves right after March Madness was cancelled to talk about having perspective, taking care of each other, and washing our hands.

I think it was because US Soccer’s position was so startlingly off that the piece actually did place, and in retrospect it was as though it was one of the last passengers to catch the last train out before the station shut down.  A lot of the reactions were along the lines one would expect in the circumstances, from “a nice distraction” to “who cares about soccer when the world is falling apart.”  Since then, everything I’ve done – everything it seems we’ve all done – has been “COVID and ___.”

Scholarship?  Check.  I put on my “law and medicine” hat and co-authored a paper on the harm to public health that can result when drugs like hydroxychloroquine are prescribed off-label in pandemic conditions involving a novel disease before gold-standard clinical trials can be conducted.

Teaching?  Check.  A special revised “COVID Edition” of my co-authored Torts casebook and lots of work with colleagues on how to give our students the best possible educational experience in a hybrid real + virtual setting.  The virus has been devastating, but I love how the disruption it’s caused has turned us into students of our own craft.  And I love how, out of a commitment to excellence in teaching and, yes, to the team, we’re all stepping up and embracing the challenge.  Coach K again:  “You’re going to be asked to do a whole bunch of new things.  Have patience.  We actually might learn some things that will help us when we get through.”

The “sex in sport” work sits on the proverbial back burner.  Some days, it dares to suggest that I might retrieve it from that place, that restaurants are re-opening at least for outdoor seating, and that the issues I’m working on aren’t going away.  The Olympics have only been postponed, not cancelled.  Decisions in related cases filed and considered pre-COVID are pending and will be issued, some shortly.  I start to reach for it when a white police officer kneels on a black man’s neck.   I quickly withdraw my hand.

Scholarship and public engagement are our bread and butter.  Regardless of the field, our work involves sharing our findings, our ideas, our arguments.  The goal is to advance knowledge in the service of society.  Usually we do this continually and we publish when the work is ready.  Sometimes what we do or what we’re saying is especially timely and so there’s a spike in attention.  At other times it’s less so, but because (hopefully) our focus is always relevant and thus worthy of study, we’re not normally stopped in our tracks by the events of the day.

This is not a normal moment.  I am stopped in my tracks by the enormity and emotion of it all and I know that many of my colleagues are too.  The reaction is at once primal and considered and so it’s reinforced rather than diminished.  We should continue to do our work because it is worthy and because it’s our job.  But if it’s not somehow on deadly conditions, social unrest, political instability, or how we’re going to get through this with humanity and into the light, it’s ok that it sits for a while.

The Kitchen Counter Observatory

Kieran Healy Every day begins in the same way. I get up. I make my coffee. I look at the data. Everything about this is absurd. To begin with, there’s the absurdity that everyone with a job like mine faces each day. Locked down at home with the kids, trying to get things done, unable to properly teach, write, or think. The household is like a little spacecraft, drifting in the void. Occasionally you venture outside to get supplies, or to check the shields. I find the days are speeding up now, because even though things drag from moment to moment, each twenty-four hour period is essentially identical. It reminds me of when my children were newborns. It’s a daily slog that, in retrospect, fuses into a gray blob almost impossible to recall in any sort of differentiated way.

Far better, of course, to have a mild case of lockdown ennui than to be in the situation of those directly fighting the pandemic, those whose health or livelihood has been devastated by it, or those who carry on out in the world, working to fulfill essential roles. I see some of them individually, at my door or in my social media. I see them in the aggregate in the data. There’s so much data. People working at international agencies, universities, newspapers, magazines, and state and local governments put out more each day, trying to capture the scale and scope of the pandemic. And it’s not just official agencies and businesses, either. One of the best sources of daily information on the pandemic in the United States is being run by a rapidly-assembled team of freelance journalists and volunteers. The COVID Tracking Project was brought into existence by the realization that the Centers for Disease Control were failing to provide the sort of daily updates on case counts and deaths that was part of their reason for existing.


driving trends data table


With a laptop, some free software, and a cup of coffee, I can examine what ought to seem like a staggering amount of information. Here, for example, is a picture showing what driving patterns have looked like every day in one hundred American cities over the past four months. As if that were a reasonable thing to be able to know while confined to your house! I drew it using information that Apple has been releasing to help researchers quantify the scope of the lockdown around the world. At this point, the full dataset has about half a million observations in it. Google is putting out a similar resource, about four times as large, that lets you see how busy different kinds of places are around the world over the same time period. This sort of thing doesn’t count as “big data” anymore. Back when I was a graduate student, I spent three days in a library manually copying down a few hundred numbers from a long-shelved report about blood donors. Now I sit here at home, surveying the scope of what’s being inflicted on people across the country and around the world as this disease spreads.

People sometimes think (or complain) that working with quantitative data like this inures you to the reality of the human lives that lie behind the numbers. Numbers and measures are crude; they pick up the wrong things; they strip out the meaning of what’s happening to real people; they make it easy to ignore what can’t be counted. There’s something to those complaints. But it’s mostly a lazy critique. In practice, I find that far from distancing you from questions of meaning, quantitative data forces you to confront them. The numbers draw you in. Working with data like this is an unending exercise in humility, a constant compulsion to think through what you can and cannot see, and a standing invitation to understand what the measures really capture—what they mean, and for whom. Those regular spikes in the driving data are the pulse of everyday life as people go out to have a good time at the weekend. That peak there is the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. That bump in Detroit was a Garth Brooks concert. Right across the country, that is the sudden shock of the shutdown the second weekend in March. It was a huge collective effort to buy time that, as it turns out, the federal government has more or less entirely wasted. And now through May here comes the gradual return to something like the baseline level of activity from January, proceeding much more quickly in some cities than in others.

I sit at my kitchen-counter observatory and look at the numbers. Before my coffee is ready, I can quickly pull down a few million rows of data courtesy of a national computer network originally designed by the government to be disaggregated and robust, because they were convinced that was what it would take for communication to survive a nuclear war. I can process it using software originally written by academics in their spare time, because they were convinced that sophisticated tools should be available to everyone for free. Through this observatory I can look out without even looking up, surveying the scale and scope of the country’s ongoing, huge, avoidable failure. Everything about this is absurd.

Lockdown India – A Look at the Plight of Locked-Out Labor

Juliette DuaraThe COVID-19 pandemic is global; so are the social and economic rifts it is revealing.   Here in the United States stark divisions have emerged between those who can work at home and those who cannot and between those who are financially secure and those who live month-to-month. Similarly, in India the Coronavirus lockdown with its imposition of “social distancing” has amplified the rifts between those who have securely reached the middle class (or more) with homes to retreat to and those who work day to day whose homes are far from the urban centers where they work, are crowded into congested slums, or are nonexistent.

While India’s first Coronavirus case was confirmed on January 30, 2020, the battle against COVID-19 began in earnest only in mid-March.  First, there was the “Janata Curfew” (People’s Curfew) on Sunday, 22 March during which everyone except those providing essential services were required to stay home from 7 am – 9 pm.  With people in their doorways ringing bells and clapping hands on cue at 5 pm that day, there was a festive element to this brief confinement.  Then, on March 24, with scant notice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that a nation-wide lockdown lasting until April 14 would begin at midnight that night to curb the spreading virus.  This 21-day lockdown has now been extended twice, with some sort of reopening now scheduled for May 17.  Meanwhile, despite these efforts, the trajectory of viral spread has continued upward.  As of May 6, India had registered 52,987 cases of Coronavirus; 1,785 people had died of the disease.

Thus, under lockdown the onslaught of travails for migrant laborers, domestic workers and others at the margins of Indian society is two-fold – the loss of livelihood from their low-wage employment in “non-essential” sectors of the economy like construction, hospitality and domestic help, and the health threat presented by their vulnerability to the virus, whether due to congested living conditions in which “social distancing” is a classist dream, or due to physical susceptibility to the virus caused by malnutrition.  The Modi government has responded to the economics of this crisis with a relief package worth $22.6 billion, yet critics charge that many of those most in need lack the registration with the federal food welfare scheme or other necessary documentation to secure the benefits on offer.  As in the US, those feeding off governmental largesse may be those with the networks, not the need.

Famed novelist, Arundhati Roy, has written about how “[h]istorically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”   As we pass through the portal, have we the will to create a more equitable, ethical world?

How to Avoid the Next COVID-19 Related Crisis

Eric MlynWe can forestall the looming democratic crisis facing the United States, but we need to move quickly.  And since the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that the federal government will not solve this, much can be done if states act quickly.

COVID-19 did not create the crisis of liberal democracy. I spent last semester warning my students and anybody else who would listen about national and global threats to liberal democracy that predate Trumpism.  Though this threat took on many forms here in the United States, voting rights – a necessary but not sufficient condition for the health and sustenance of democracy – have been under assault for many years through things like voter suppression and gerrymandering.   More recently, from the Supreme Court decision on Shelby vs. Holder that invalidated key aspects of the Voting Rights Act to President Trump’s spurious claims of past and potential voter fraud, free and fair elections in the US have faced unprecedented threats.

Now bring on the global pandemic where in the US the likely presence of COVID-19 in the fall makes holding elections as if business were usual nearly impossible.  Witness the Wisconsin primary last month where an inability to reach a political compromise on mail in voting resulted in citizens having to choose between voting and their health.

Like with the steps we needed to take to reduce the economic and public health carnage of COVID-19 – such as social distancing, testing and contact tracing, electoral experts agree that we can make voting safe and inclusive.  Steps such as  expanding mail in balloting, lengthening the time for early voting, making online voter registration easy and accessible, and designing polling locations in November that will allow for social distancing and the safety of poll workers are all necessary and possible. There is no shortage of good detailed plans out there.

So given the federal failures across all levels of planning and implementation during this global pandemic, leadership for averting this democratic crisis is coming from governors and states, and not the federal government.  Moreover, it is coming from both Democratic and Republican Governors, and from a recent bi-partisan report.   It is fortuitous that states control election laws, and many are taking important steps to avoid the COVID-19 democratic crisis that looms before us.  Though the first stimulus bill included $400 million for states to invest in their electoral systems, most experts agree that we need  nearly $4 billion to get us ready for elections in November. Let the feds provide the money and get out of the way so we can avoid yet another COVID-19 related crisis. It is not too early to start learning from our mistakes.