by Keisha Ray, PhD
In the past I have written on the concept of Black bioethics and when a mob of White domestic terrorists attacked the US Capitol last week I couldn’t help but think of the health of Black people watching these attacks. I thought of the psychological effects, such as mental anguish and anxiety they would cause for Black people. I thought of the stress these attacks must cause Black people and the very real adverse biological effects of stress on Black people, a population who already has disproportionate rates of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, all which are worsened by stress. I thought of the health effects of feeling disturbed, angry, sad, marginalized, mistreated, and all the other emotions we can imagine Black people might feel after seeing images of White people cause terror with little to no punishment from law enforcement and instead receiving kindness and understanding for their emotions and actions. The events at the nation’s Capitol building threatened Black people’s health and provides an opportunity to explore what it means to practice Black bioethics.
I have loosely defined Black bioethics as “the exploration and interrogation of any event, ideal, technological advancement, person, or institution that directly or indirectly affects the health or well-being of black (loosely defined) individuals or the black population.” Given this, when I watched domestic terrorists climb the walls of the US Capitol building, leave homemade bombs, search for Congress people in attempts to harm them, attack police officers, hang nooses on the Capitol’s grounds, destroy property, scream profanities, and declare a revolution, my thoughts immediately turned to the Black people watching these events unfold. What do these images of White mobs do for Black people who are not so far removed from American slavery and Jim Crow laws that they can disassociate from the attack on the Capitol? What do these images of White mobs mean to Black people who just a few months ago lived through attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters by White mobs and police officers?
Black people knew all too well that the mob of terrorists at the Capitol building represented a privilege that they could never have. Black people know that if those mobs were Black they would have been shot dead before they reached the Capitol. And this is because Black people are not allowed to be angry. Our feelings are seen as a threat to law and order and to White people’s safety and comfort because our very Blackness is seen as a threat. And the fragility of our bodies and the state’s continuing interest in managing Black people do not give us the privilege to be angry in public and surround the US Capitol building. Black anger is seen as a threat to White people and is therefore squashed, often times with lethal force, before it can erupt. We saw this in the Black Lives Matter protest when police maced, beat, and arrested largely peaceful Black protesters. We saw the national guard get called in to monitor and end protests. We saw White vigilantes take policing Black anger into their own hands and respond with lethal force. We’ve seen similar actions from police and White vigilantes during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and in 1992 when the police that beat Rodney King were exonerated in Los Angeles. There are so many more examples of Black people being unfairly treated by our legal systems and not being allowed to express anger this mistreatment.
Black people use all of this knowledge and examples of disparities in accepting White anger but fearing Black anger as the lens for viewing these White mobs attacking the US Capitol building. So for Black people to see White people attack police officers, even killing one, and attack our nation’s Capitol building because their candidate did not win the 2020 US presidential election when Black people are just fighting for equal rights and to not be killed by police officers is maddening. It’s stress, anxiety, and depression inducing, all which have consequences for Black people’s personal health, their work productivity, their engagement in hobbies that make them happy, their engagement in relationships with friends and family, and their overall wellbeing.
These attacks are not without harm to Black health. And the effects may not be seen immediately. Stress can have long term effects, particularly for people who already have chronic conditions. Stress, particularly racism and discrimination induced stress can also be passed down from Black pregnant people to their fetuses. Stress can cause low birth weights and poor neurodevelopment. These effects of stress will be felt by Black children and the families that care for them long after the stressful event is felt by the pregnant individual. When Black life is not valued and White people are allowed to violently act out their privilege it perpetuates socially created adverse health in the Black population and makes poor health a legacy in Black families.
Black bioethics examines the events, actions, and policies that affect Black health. The attack on the US Capitol building affects Black health. I can’t help but wonder how many years off of Black lives will the knowledge that in America your skin color determines if you’re allowed to be angry and express that anger without fear of being killed take from Black people. Black people are making some gains in decreasing the life expectancy gap, but Black people, particularly Black men still have lower life expectancy than White people. Black men, who also are more likely to be incarcerated and killed by police officers also had to watch the Capitol events unfold. Like other Black people, it forced them to think about their own mortality when faced with a country that does not value their lives yet values the lives of White terrorists enough to allow them to attack a federal building without harm, and in some cases with cop-mob gleeful selfies and shared laughs. Black bioethics asks us to think about the Capitol attack’s broader implications for Black health and demand that we do more than sit back and shake our heads.