Opinion | The politics of death

Opinion by Mikayla Tillery
May 24, 2021, 9:17 p.m.

Before I had a word for it, I knew what necropolitics meant.

Namrata Verghese, a JD/PhD student here at Stanford, describes it with the following scenario:

You’re stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean, along with a CEO, a doctor, a musician, a student, and an unemployed person. There’s a hole in the floor and the raft is slowly filling with water. It can hold the weight of only five people. One of you has to go. Who do you throw overboard?

The answer reveals who we think is the most disposable, and in politics, this scenario isn’t just a hypothetical. The concept that the government has the capacity to dictate disposability — or, more academically defined, “the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die” — is necropolitics. 

Beyond the raft, necropolitics is easily spotted in COVID-19 responses. Immunocompromised people watched as politicians and celebrities assured the American public that COVID-19 was nothing to worry about; the only people dying were immunocompromised or the elderly. But you and me, NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel ’96 claimed, are the CEO and the doctor who knew our place on the raft would always be secure. People like Richard Engel dismissed panic because we’ll get “a little sick, then recover.” 

Brooke Vittimberga ’19 captured the feelings of the immunocompromised by tweeting: “Tired of reading about how we shouldn’t worry because coronavirus is only risky to vulnerable people like immune compromised people. Y’all know immune compromised people can read, right?” 

That is just one example within the necropolitical microcosm that is the COVID-19 pandemic. When Black communities that are disproportionately more likely to die from the virus also have less access to the vaccine, necropolitics determines that Black death simply isn’t as fear-inducing as white death. When a vaccine apartheid develops between high-income and low-income countries to protect Big Pharma’s intellectual property interests, necropolitics dictates that millions of lives in Africa and India are worth Bill Gates keeping his patent protections. 

In remembering George Floyd’s death, exactly one ago today, we have to talk about how Floyd’s murder was weaponized to serve the whims of conservative, liberals and leftists alike. In cases of police brutality, necropolitics determines that a police officer’s life is invariably more important than a Black person’s. And so, Black people find themselves uniquely understanding that there is a hierarchy of death. As philosopher Achille Mbembe puts it, “[Black people experience a] social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.” Within necropolitics, Black people understand that we are born to die — at the hands of the police, while giving birth, by lynching or in jail. 

Even from liberals, this rhetoric is epitomized with Nancy Pelosi’s speech: “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.” It’s clear that non-Black people don’t view police brutality victims as people, but as ideas. For Pelosi, Floyd’s death was a concept just as abstract as choosing to pull the lever to divert the trolley; it was a thought experiment that resulted in what she claimed was justice. George Floyd was born to die so that she could push police reform

The same goes for leftists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. In a letter addressed to Tamika D. Mallory, Shaun King, Benjamin Crump and the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Tamir Rice’s mother said, “We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc. off the death of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left clueless and broken.” 

While onlookers, including some Black people, do the necropolitical calculus of who ought to live and who should die — largely rooted in our understanding of respectability politics — we make martyrs out of Black bodies without regard for the Black lives that existed before and the Black lives that experience the violence vicariously. 

Tamir’s mother Samaria never got to look at his death as a thought experiment or a catalyst. To her, his name isn’t synonymous with justice or injustice — it’s simply a reminder of what their family has lost. Necropolitics means that Black Lives Matter hinges on the constant production of publicized and commodified Black death. While professional activists use Black victims to acquire money and status, Black mothers of police brutality victims, like Lisa Simpson, are forced to relive the trauma daily while facing homelessness.

This Machiavellian concept that some of us must die to save the rest of the people on the raft, or to advance a larger cause, is based on the tired capitalist construct of scarcity. But when talking about sacrifice and scarcity, somehow the only people making sacrifices are the oppressed. The calculus of necropolitics comes down to politicians and governments determining how far they can push the envelope, how many Black and brown people can reasonably be killed, while maintaining legitimacy. When Derek Chauvin receives a guilty verdict, that only reveals that the policing system understands that it can make a shining example of one police officer in order to settle the stomachs of people like Pelosi who think that this is justice. 

And when philosophers and scholars use the word calculus, they mean it literally. Necropolitics forces us to ask how many dead Palestinian children are equal to one dead Israeli child. For Andrew Yang, that ratio seems to be 66:2 this month and 550:1 at worst. Necropolitics means that we must assign a differential value to every human life. The public figures that wade in the rhetoric that there is equal harm, that the occupied can somehow compare to the occupier, are actively devaluing the lives of Palestinians. 

I offer solidarity to the Palestinians who must hear apologies in retrospect, as if resistance can only be embraced as history with UN resolutions acting as plausible deniability, to Indians and Indian Americans who are forced to watch the pyres of their families publicized in every major newspaper, to the Latine and Indigenous communities who must time and time again advocate against femicide, and to the Africans who watched as photos of Black death won the Pulitzer Prize. I offer solidarity to every other Black or brown person who has to bear the trauma of watching our communities be picked off one-by-one while white people gawk at images of our dead bodies, the dead bodies they were complicit in killing. 

It’s a lot scarier to be on that raft when you know you are the unemployed person. And every day, marginalized people worry that when the water starts leaking, politicians will decide that we’re disposable. 

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