The Political Life of Black Infant Mortality
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"The Political Life of Black Infant Mortality" tracks the trajectory of black infant death as a political problem from approximately 1800 to the present. I argue that the overwhelming disproportion between black and white infant mortality rates over this entire period expresses a striking continuity in the devaluation of African American life in the U.S., even as official conceptualizations of black infant mortality have undergone radical shifts: from "proof" of African American degeneracy in the late 19th century to persistent diagnoses of black maternal pathology to today's research on the epigenetic impacts of racism via lifelong stress on the maternal body. I frame these conceptualizations, and their associated interventions, as successive paradigms of what Michel Foucault called "biopolitics," or attempts to optimize populations' collective life in ways that entail racially exclusionary elements. I use a wide variety of sources, including Foucault, Orlando Patterson, "Afro-pessimist" scholars like Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton, and Frank Wilderson III, Michel De Certeau, Bruno Latour, W.E.B. Du Bois, Audre Lorde, racist statistician Frederick Hoffman, and accounts of antebellum mourning practices and Jim Crow-era and contemporary African American midwives to describe and analyze a succession of biopolitical paradigms of black infant mortality, focusing in particular on the period from 1890 to 1940. I show both the repressive logics and practices of these biopolitical paradigms and some of the ways that African American political thinkers and actors have resisted and reworked these logics and practices. Highlighting the interconnections of political thought and public health research and policy, I argue that the antebellum political ontology of race issued in the enduring figuration of "true babyhood" as white, excluding black infants from later, formalized biopolitical concern; that Du Bois leveled a two-pronged rhetorical challenge to the prevailing turn-of-the-century biopolitical exclusion; and that the care practices of Jim Crow-era and contemporary African American midwives exemplify a potent politics of survival and affirmation of the value of black life.
- Political science