Demonstrators protest the police killing of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It is not surprising that a settler colonial state would practice racism for centuries or that race would be the major factor determining who lives and who dies.
It is no secret that the United States is an organized death cult. The U.S. is the unquestionable leader in total COVID-19 deaths. Life expectancy has been trending downward for the past several years. Mass shootings are a common occurrence. And U.S. foreign policy is marked by an obsession with violent and destructive interventions for hegemony and corporate profit.
What often isn’t discussed is how this organized death cult is driven by the U.S.’s racist roots which have yet to be discarded. Premature death is organized by the ruling class into worthy and unworthy victims. The U.S.’s corporate media coverage of Ukraine during Russia’s military operation is a case in point. Ukrainian casualties in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are worthy victims and have been repeatedly referred to in the Western media as “Europeans” with “blonde hair and blue eyes.” The death of hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen by the U.S.-sponsored Saudi war or the thirteen thousand newborns that have been killed by the U.S.’s seizure of aid to Afghanistan rarely, if ever, makes headlines.
Race also plays a central role in the way that premature death is explained away in the United States. Suicide, overdoses, and alcohol-related illnesses have caused a steep decline in the life expectancy of middle-age white men. Over the past decade, both sides of the U.S.’s duopoly have sought to exploit these “deaths of despair” for electoral purposes. Republicans and Democrats have blamed each other for the opioid crisis and have taken various approaches to win over the disaffected “white working class” spoken about so frequently in elite circles. This section of the working class is deemed by elites as having value because white American perceptions of the government have an impact on U.S. presidential and Congressional elections.
Then there is the large section of the working class and poor whose deaths are unworthy of attention. Indigenous Peoples have for centuries lived under brutal colonial conditions in the United States and suffered from the deaths of despair commonly associated with middle-age white American men. Life expectancy for Indigenous People is the lowest of all social and racial groups and their rate of death at the hands of murderous cops is the highest. However, the high death rate of Indigenous people has largely been erased from public discourse. This erasure is often viewed with a historic lens but continues into the present with the misclassification of Indigenous peoples as other racial and ethnic groups on their death certificates, a phenomenon that occurs in one out of every three deaths.
Black Americans have long fallen within the category of unworthy victims in the United States. Black American communities have suffered from U.S.-sanctioned heroin and crack cocaine crises that brought decades of repression and criminalization which continues onward into the present. There has been no “deaths of despair” narrative during these drug-related crises, just Jim Crow violence and mass incarceration. The premature deaths of Black people in the United States continue to be treated as an afterthought. If it were not for the Black Lives Matter uprisings that emerged in 2014, it’s likely that issues such as police homicide being a leading cause of death in young Black Americans would remain a political non-starter for many in the United States.
Police murder is just one avenue of the premature death of Black people in the country that enslaved them. Life expectancy for Black men is the lowest of all racial groups. Black people disproportionately die of preventable medical diseases and are most likely to live in conditions unfit for human life. Poverty, racism, environmental hazard, and toxic stress are facts of life for the majority of Black workers. Mass incarceration, which afflicts nearly one million Black Americans and 2.3 million in total at any given moment, is proven to take 2 years of life expectancy for every year behind prison walls. COVID-19 exposed the murderous social conditions of Black life by reducing life expectancy a total of three years in a two-year span. Of course, it wasn’t the virus that did this, but the scourge of racist and capitalist super exploitation that exposed large sections of the Black community to the deadly contagion.
The United States is organized to normalize Black death and render it a mundane fact of life. Patrick Lyoya’s brutal death at the hands of Michigan-based cops garnered outrage locally but did little to nothing to revive the energy of the 2020 uprisings against the police murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The death of a Black man in Boston after getting caught in the doors of an MBTA train car and dragged received scant attention outside of local media. Yet these cases reveal a universal dictum of U.S. imperialism. Black Americans face the brunt of the repression and austerity that U.S. imperialism wages within its colonial borders and thus their deaths must be expected or worse, criminalized.
U.S. imperialism has reached an acute phase of its development where contradictions once reserved for the most oppressed sections of the working class have blown back at nearly the entire population. Neoliberal austerity has placed downward economic pressure on more than 80 percent of the U.S. population living paycheck to paycheck. Surveillance has been expanded to encompass every single U.S. citizen’s private data. While violent policing disproportionately impacts Black and indigenous people, thousands of poor whites have been killed by cops as collateral damage over the past decade. The trillions spent on wars abroad have become a fetter on the stability of U.S. capital, especially the primacy of the U.S. dollar.
In the age of COVID-19, death has become an even more prominent feature of the world capitalist system in its imperialist stage. The value of labor under capitalism is calculated as merely the means necessary to reproduce it. Austerity drives the value of labor to the lowest possible point. A steep rise in the premature death of the toiling masses is thus an inevitability. The role of race in the Great Death Divide is to create worthy and unworthy victims, thereby negating the possibility of class solidarity.
Racism, class exploitation, and war form what Martin Luther King described as the “triple” evils of U.S. imperialism. A singular struggle against them is therefore necessary to eradicate the Great American Death Divide and the imperialist world order that gave it birth.
Danny Haiphong’s work can be followed on Twitter @SpiritofHo and on YouTube as co-host with Margaret Kimberley of Black Agenda Report Present's: The Left Lens. You can support Danny on Patreon by clicking this link. He is co-author of the book “American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.” You can contact him at [email protected].