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The Unmattering of Black Lives

In the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, we see that the violence of the past is the violence of the present.

Sean Rayford/Getty Image
Jasmine Arbery, sister of Ahmaud Arbery, and Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud’s mother, comfort one another while people gather in a Georgia park to honor Ahmaud.

On May 20, 2015—almost five years ago to the day—the African American Policy Forum hosted #SayHerName: A Vigil in Memory of Black Women and Girls Killed by the Police, so that families from across the country could come together in a powerful show of solidarity to uplift the stories of their late loved ones. They were the family members of Alberta Spruill, Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Kyam Livingston, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, and Tanisha Anderson. We said their names.

While the hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery has become a well-known tragedy, many have yet to hear the story of Breonna Taylor—a Black woman who was killed when plainclothes policemen mistakenly raided her home and shot her eight times. Taylor was a certified emergency medical technician who spent many of her last hours in high-risk service to others. The risk she did not survive—the one that broke through her door spraying bullets—was the all-too-common one facing Black women: a killing at the hands of white cops and a posthumous descent into public anonymity.

These two deaths—one in broad daylight at the hands of callous vigilantes, the other in the dead of night at the hands of hyped-up cops—together represent what is widely understood within the African American community: that pre-Covid, mid-Covid, and post-Covid, we are continually subject to death by law-enforcement fiat. The specter of our sudden, senseless, and crudely rationalized demises is so directly correlated with the simple status of being Black that we have taken to naming innocent activity as an apparent capital crime. Arbery’s offense was jogging while Black; Taylor’s was sheltering in her own home while Black.

These deaths are modern embodiments of racial terror dating back to a time we like to think is long past: the reign of white impunity rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. In these times, there were no rules, laws, or expectations against Black life being taken.

We still have the grainy black-and-white photos of Mary Turner—a pregnant Black woman who was lynched in May 1918, whose husband had been lynched just days before—as reminders of the very specific history of terrorism in our country. It’s a terrorism that snuffed out the lives of men, women, and children as an expression of state-sanctioned racial murder.

We tend to elide the still-living legacy of racist predation with the comforting reflection that we no longer live in an era in which the cost of voting could be death, when the first stirrings of Black economic self-sufficiency on Black Wall Street triggered a vengeful white backlash that left it in smoldering ruins, when race riots and lynchings could erupt with a devastating suddenness that left an entire group targeted and terrorized, and when the national government utterly relinquished the fate of its Black citizens to the tyranny of white dominion. But this complacent line drawn between then and now is a fiction. The shock of modern-day racial terror is the forced return to a supposedly bygone era and the resurgence of a cultural milieu that was largely defined by feasting on Black life. The random victimization of Black Americans by this suffocating past echoes the forced relocation of ancestors uprooted from their homes and lives to serve as beasts of burden tasked with building the wealth of America. And this selfsame senseless unmattering of Black life makes these deaths, among all others, exceptionally intolerable.

Of a larger piece with this unmattering of Black lives lost through state violence is the sacrifice of Black Americans via the stealth victimization of our bodies through radical disparities of health and wealth. We are witnessing yet again the disproportionate deaths suffered in Black communities in the face of the raging Covid-19 pandemic. But the longer-term backdrop to this death toll resides in the way that the social harming of Black bodies is naturalized as an ordinary pathogen that takes 15, 20, or even 25 years off Black lives as compared to white ones. The disproportionate lethality of Covid-19 among Black Americans is directly related to the environmental racism and health care disparities that existed long before it. The brutal predictability of this process prompts little fanfare. Instead, the slow, steady removal of Black bodies under reigning health and wealth disparities is taken as a kind of second nature—a reckoning of mass death delivered by the invisible hand of fate, choice, and natural circumstance.

We rightly characterize the killings of Arbery and Taylor as homicides, authorized and facilitated by permissive state policies rooted in what we had hoped was a bygone era. But what shall we make of the intersection between these different modalities of Black people’s death—between the intentional killings and the left-dyings? How are we to understand the hurried decisions taken by state governments to “reopen the economy”—which in truth is a racialized mandate to push more Black health and service workers directly in the path of the pandemic so as to satisfy the convenience of a predominately white and affluent customer base—when the resulting elevated death tolls for Black workers are fully known and partly preventable by life-sustaining expenditures permitting these workers to continue safely sheltering in place?

Those who bristle at the characterization of Arbery’s death as a lynching and Taylor’s as an execution will surely balk at the suggestion that what lurks behind this bald political calculus—one that ultimately pivots on an “acceptable” number of deaths in poorer nonwhite communities—is a kind of genocide. We understand this term to be freighted with specific historical associations and concrete technologies deployed to eliminate a troublesome population. But just as lynching doesn’t need a rope, and executioners can eschew an orderly firing squad, we have to own up to the ugly truth that the tolerance—and indeed the explicit rationalization—of large-scale death and destruction focused disproportionately on a historically racialized group can fall squarely within the territory of genocide.

As the evidence of the Black community’s disproportionate loss of life under Covid-19 continues to mount, there might have been cause to hope that these shocking findings might somehow quicken the spirit of mutuality and human compassion. Yet Arbery’s home state of Georgia, where more than 80 percent of Covid-19 hospitalizations have been Black people, “reopened” earlier this month. What that reopening actually means for Black residents has been hidden in plain sight: One shopper in a wealthy white enclave of suburban Atlanta, enamored of his new freedom, told The Washington Post, “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics—I’m not worried.” What has transpired since is another weary round of racialized victim-shaming, as when various health authorities urged improvements to diet and lifestyle for Black victims of the twenty-first-century plague.

Such counsel was uncomfortably close to the suggestion among white right-wing pundits that the death of Arbery could have been avoided had he simply refrained from exercising his agency and remained out of the public realm. Or that Taylor might have survived had her partner not attempted to defend his home and loved one against what appeared to be a home invasion—a gruesome contrast, to put it mildly, to the specter of armed, white-majority protesters disrupting state legislative business to demand deferential service from vulnerable workers.

This toxic brand of racialized blame-shifting is by now so widespread that even those of us who share the risks of racism can easily succumb to it. We all want to believe we have control over our lives. But for African Americans, the distance we’ve traversed from a time when we certainly did not embodies a hope that allows us to continue living beyond the reach of terror that can, at any unbidden moment, sweep us back to the godforsaken time. In this horror story, the terror is in recognizing that our flight from one monster leaves us prey to another. If these monsters are not confronted, there will always be another.

To avoid another sequel, we have to confront squarely that the precarity of Black life was never fully overcome. We have to say the names of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor because we have to be ever vigilant against the deliberate ways that the violence of the past is the violence of the present—permitted to lurk among us as a threat to our lives and our agency alike.

And we must also absorb the bone-chilling truth that the rapid spread of Covid-19, and disproportionate death rates, among Black Americans is a product of the everyday disregard for our lives. This involuntary sacrifice of a predictably vulnerable population does more than shore up a grossly inequitable economy and distribution of power. It has to be squarely confronted for what it is: One more chapter in the annals of American racial power, in which the bodies of some are sacrificed en masse for the privilege and convenience of others.