Why Black America?

Jean Beaman June 2020

Coronavirus is not the great equalizer many have claimed. Rather, it has only exacerbated existing racial and ethnic inequalities in the United States, as well as worldwide. Examining both this global pandemic and the reactions to it reveal how racism remains significant, particularly in understanding all aspects of Black life. In the case of COVID-19, we can see this in terms of the disproportionate number of deaths of Black Americans, the ways that Black communities have been surveilled in the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19, and the proportion of Black Americans constructed as “essential workers.”

This disproportion is due to decades of racial residential segregation, racial and ethnic health inequalities, and other social dynamics. By focusing on the specific experiences of Black populations we can better understand what it means to be on the margins of society – technically a part of it, yet relegated to its margins. Moreover, in order to understand the marginality that exists during the global pandemic we have to reckon with the marginality that existed before COVID-19.

My own research focuses on populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, living on the margins of mainstream society in both France and the United States. Specifically, I’m interested in the undergirding racial logic behind marginality. There are various differences between France and the United States, however there are notable similarities, especially regarding how racial and ethnic minorities are deeply impacted by this crisis. Who are deemed “essential workers”? Who can reasonably practice “social distancing”? Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s framework of necropolitics refers to how the state exercises power over defining which populations are disposable, or “who may live and who must die.” And what does it mean to live in a society that still regards certain populations as disposable compared to others?

Jean Beaman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was previously on the faculty at Purdue University and has held visiting fellowships at Duke University and the European University Institute (Florence, Italy)