“Once again I realized that, from inside these walls, life or death don’t count or matter, not even in large scale matters like this,” the woman wrote from prison in her letter to Mourning Our Losses (MOL).
Endless columns of names descended on the television screen. Each unintelligible black scribble stretched out like a hand towards the ineffable things words can’t say. For how can a name capture a life? Behind the barbed wire and the thick walls and the cold steel bars, the woman sat watching, scanning for names of people who died of the coronavirus while incarcerated.
She found none. This did not surprise her. Incarcerated people, rendered invisible and leprous by the state in life, remained that way even in death. Crushed by mainstream media’s inability to even acknowledge the incarcerated dead and the government’s refusal to do so, she cried and let the darkness of her prison cell take over.
As I write this, flat lines appear on monitors in hospital rooms. Somewhere and everywhere, a doctor is calling the time of death while families grieve. Rather than grappling with the nearly 250,000 deaths in America and mobilizing to prevent further harm, this country has embraced partisan rhetoric about common-sense public health measures, opting to sacrifice human lives at the altar of the economy.
Centuries before America recorded its first coronavirus death, the nation had a long tradition of valuing some lives more than others. We were never in this together because we don’t see and acknowledge all people. Our empathy is selective and exclusionary.
But the demographics of the death toll and the collective apathy towards those demographics tell an even more frightening story about who America is, whose lives we value, and the ever-widening gulf between our history and the stories we tell ourselves. American institutions’ systematic disregard for Black and brown lives not only informs their policies, but has made the American public numb to the suffering and humanity of the most vulnerable among us.
On September 21, President Trump proudly proclaimed that the coronavirus affects “virtually nobody” at a rally. In the eyes of those in power, poor, sick, Black, and brown people are nobodies. Racism and capitalism are in the muscle memory of American society and institutions, and the racial disparity of the coronavirus deaths is evidence of the continual assault on Black and brown lives—the dismissal of our humanity. This could not be more evident in the current moment. The price of admission to this presidency was racism: Racist birther conspiracies and the attack on the nation’s first Black and South Asian Vice-President elect were its bookends. 62.98 million people sanctioned the dehumanization of people of color in 2016, and 72.93 million sanctioned it again in 2020. Despite our ideal of an unbroken line towards justice and racial equity in America, the overwhelming support of Trump’s base reveals that the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend naturally.
The statement “Black Lives Matter” itself repudiates those logics that diminish Black personhood. But Trumpism is not an anomaly, and this rhetoric did not emerge in a hermetically sealed space. Trapped in a history we are only beginning to understand, the twin pandemics of racism and the coronavirus have laid bare the chasm between America’s real history and its seductive national mythology.
Despite the historic nature of the pandemic, the coronavirus is a continuation of racial disparities in sickness and death; as historian of American law and Yale Law School professor Dr. John Fabian Witt said in an interview with The Politic, it has served as “a lamp that has illuminated some basic features of American social life.”
The distribution of sickness and death has always mirrored systems of racial inequality. Deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean’s waters are the enslaved Africans thrown overboard on the ship La Rodeur, discarded because the spread of ophthalmia, a disease that causes temporary blindness, made them too difficult to sell. Today, Black women die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications at two to three times the rate of white and Hispanic women, due to doctors’ inability to recognize their pain and the structures of racism that deprive them of wages, affordable housing, quality education, and adequate medical care.
This country has never hesitated to abandon the people it deems essential yet expendable. Enslaved Africans were the builders of the nation: Their bodies were America’s largest financial asset in the nineteenth century. Plantation owners industrialized the exploitation of Black women’s reproductive labor in service of the American economy during slavery; their health was compromised for medical experimentation, too. Yet, despite this nation’s dependency on Black bodies, its healthcare system abandons and discriminates against the descendants of those same women.
The illnesses of American exceptionalism and individualism are deadlier than the coronavirus. The mythology of settler colonialism and American exceptionalism are made possible only by erasing violence against Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. The disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color is a continuation of those oppressive dynamics. And with an ever-rising death toll, the costs of our inability to see each other’s humanity and act with the health and safety of our communities in mind rises by the hour.
In an age in which videos of state-sanctioned violence against Black men are spread like the lynching postcards of the early 20th century, American society has become numb to the anguish of the people it places at the margins. This is a society where people find it easier to empathize with Kyle Rittenhouse than Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. After Rittenhouse murdered two people in the unrest after a Kenosha police officer Jacob Blake, the crowdfunding website Give Send Go fundraised nearly half a million dollars for his legal expenses.
A recent Center for Disease Control report found that most children who died of the coronavirus were of color. And in a national conversation that elides the intersectional failures that made this reality possible—choosing instead to amplify feel-good rhetoric assuring that we’re all in this together—these deaths occur without acknowledgement. Because Black and brown children dying is the rule and not the exception. In death, as in life, the lives of people who are Black, Indigenous, incarcerated, and of color are deemed disposable.
The brutalized bodies of Black children like Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin are evidence of this nation’s failure to pass the litmus test of its Constitution—even Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a democratic America was not expansive enough to include Black and brown people. And it doesn’t include them to this day. Before Black children return to dust, we adultify them, demonize them, and brutalize them. In rhetoric and in action, we show zero tolerance for childlike behavior. It is this mindset that has allowed Americans to justify coronavirus deaths of Black children as anything other than abhorrent.
Black children are not the only subjects of apathy and dehumanization; the long tentacles of the carceral state do not leave undocumented migrant children unscathed either. Children who arrived at our southern border in search of safety, security, and shelter were met with the unimaginable cruelty of Customs and Border Protection, held in camps where overcrowded conditions and the lack of basic toiletries undermined the nation’s professed commitment to human rights. Some, like 16-year-old Guatemalan Carlos Gregario Hernandez, had health conditions that Border Patrol failed to adequately address; Hernandez was diagnosed with the flu, placed into the unhygienic conditions of detention, and left to die. These inhumane conditions—which bear a striking resemblance to prisons and jails across the country— were perfect for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. And with the inability to social distance and little access to running water, the terrible conditions of the refugee camp along the southern border brought on by the “Remain in Mexico” policy portend catastrophe.
The deaths of children of color are not an aberration, but a continuation of the norm. Normal was lethal for them. The President of the United States was not the first person—or the only one— to think of them as nobodies, as less than nobodies. President Trump may have taken out ads in The New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, but he was joined by a chorus of dehumanizing voices from the media. As the young adolescents became the targets of racist imagination made real, they walked into the courthouse in 1990 with demonstrators’ cries of “you don’t deserve to be alive” ringing in their ears.
When faced with the deaths of Black people, the American public reflexively dehumanizes and devalues them. To shift blame to the victims, mainstream media and law enforcement demonize Black male victims of police brutality posthumously. After Cleveland law enforcement gunned down twelve-year-old Tamir Rice as he threw snowballs and played with a toy pellet gun, the city of Cleveland announced that Rice was responsible for his own death. Many people on social media questioned his mother’s parenting skills, and one article even dredged up an irrelevant drug trafficking charge from her past to implicate her.
Presented with the opportunity to create narratives humanizing the victims of police brutality, editorial staff stayed within the racial boundaries of empathy—a choice that primed our desensitization towards victims of both police brutality and the coronavirus. Rather than addressing the grief of families brought on by senseless killings, national publications like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times spent years bringing up Eric Garner’s weight and pre-existing conditions and Freddie Gray’s police record. Now, rather than mourn alongside devastated minority communities, health secretary Alex Azar blamed their comorbidities for the death toll, deflecting from long histories of unequal access to healthy food and the deliberate attempt to deprive Black people in the South of healthcare. Americans are numb to Black death because it is what they have been taught.
White violence and terrorism are excusable, and the mainstream America obfuscate it with the language of the defense of property and community. But when Black people raise reasonable objections about their lack of equal citizenship in a country that has profited from their labor since its genesis, it is somehow deemed unacceptable.
How did we become so anesthetized to the deaths and suffering of the people at society’s margins? Our pre-existing condition as American society was a lack of regard and respect for each other engendered by the social and political institutions that fail to protect the most marginalized. It was our willingness to perceive members of our communities as expendable that allowed for the normalization of nearly 250,000 coronavirus deaths.
This enduring inequality has been made strikingly clear in the coronavirus pandemic, drawing out the sinister underside of the current political order in America.
“The political party that controlled the White House has almost no Black constituency and is predominantly made up of white Americans,” Witt stated. “One real possibility is that the Republican Party had little interest in dealing seriously with this epidemic because their constituency wasn’t the constituency being worst affected.”
The hyper-partisan rhetoric stemming from the federal government is all too familiar: Public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing became another fault line between the right and left. And even then, racial undercurrents shaped the ideological divide.
“Certainly blue states were expressly targets of the White House at a variety of occasions over the course of the last six months,” Witt explained. “And a lot of those blue states are places with big cities and large African-American populations.” The White House has repeatedly located blue states and Democrat-run cities as a source of decay in the nation. When protestors spoke in the language of the unheard in the aftermath of the Geroge Floyd killing, President Trump responded to a nation in crisis by citing the weak governance of Democratic governors and mayors. Just as President Richard Nixon did, he cloaked his attack on the civil rights movement of his era in the race-neutral language of law and order. Last year, he referred to Representative Elijah Cumming’s district in Baltimore as a place that no human being would want to live in. And it’s no coincidence that the district has a majority-Black population. To him, Black and subhuman are synonymous.
While those in power attempt to erase Black deaths from history as it unfolds, marginalized groups are reclaiming the narrative, forcing us to contend with the humanity of people long dismissed and ignored.
Launched in May 2020 by a volunteer group of educators, artists, and organizers, Mourning Our Losses is a crowd-sourced memorial to honor and remember those who died behind bars during the coronavirus pandemic. This organization harnesses the power of narrative and storytelling to counter the dehumanizing portrayal of incarcerated people in the media and advocate for their release.
In an interview with The Politic, Eliza Kravitz ‘23, one of the primary organizers of Mourning Our Losses (MOL), stated, “The people inside [prisons] feel that they’re completely dehumanized and treated like they’re disposable, and that’s not new. We ignore so much of what goes on beyond bars. Their brilliance is not acknowledged, and what has happened to them is not acknowledged.”
Kravitz and many other volunteers have worked tirelessly to strip away the racism, classism, and ableism that cloud our visions of one another. MOL draws a constellation of tragedies where the humanity of the incarcerated and the structural violence of the carceral state are in full view. They get us to see and acknowledge the loss of life behind bars and witness the deadly oppression that underwrites our profoundly imperfect union.
“We’re trying to portray these people as human beings and not how the criminal justice system sees them,” Kravitz continued. Even down to the language, MOL makes sure that the narratives emphasize the humanity of the deceased, showing that incarcerated people are far more than their crime of conviction and giving loved ones the space to honor them. They replace words like “inmate,” “offender,” and “prisoner” with the ever-important label of “human.”
Kravitz noted legislators’ failure to release incarcerated people at the beginning of the pandemic—a life-saving intervention that was implemented several months too late. Yet again, the nation disposed of the people it deemed undesirable.
That disposal and lack of regard for human life did not start with the pandemic. In death and life, people behind bars disappear into numbers and statistics, packed into overcrowded conditions where soap is often hard to find—perfect conditions for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. In a dual system that frequently favors the rich and guilty over the poor and innocent, injustice is served far too often. According to a report by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, 80 percent of people who died in Texas jails from the coronavirus were not convicted of a crime.
Even in a collective moment of mourning, their names go unsaid. But I choose to say their names.
In solidarity, we must remember Tiffany Mofield, who called out the all-too-familiar words “I can’t breathe” as she succumbed to the coronavirus in a locked shower after prison officials failed to provide medical treatment. We must choose to remember her as the loving daughter, mother, and grandmother she was, even as we reckon with the inhumanity of her treatment. In solidarity, we remember Madonna Watson, who died in June of breast cancer and the coronavirus. Her friends and family remember her as a selfless mother with a big heart and a wonderful spirit. In solidarity, we remember James Scott who died of the coronavirus in April; prison authorities left him in a cell with another incarcerated person who was known to be positive for the virus. He was a student in the Northwestern Prison Education Program and known for his kindness. Mofield, Watson, Scott, and so many others were somebody to someone. And their lives mattered.
Fleeting feelings of sadness after hearing about the pain and suffering of one person is not enough to lead us to act. What we need more than individual empathy is solidarity and an understanding of our linked fates. We know what we must demand: Mutual aid, free testing sites, plans to increase investment in public provisions and create a more equitable healthcare system. In a moment where individual actions have serious implications for public health, interdependence—across party, race, class, and gender—is the throughline in this chapter of history we are writing and living.