#WC4BL: No More White Coats?

Mia Florin-Sefton //

     In the Fall of 2014, medical students and medical faculty across the US staged “white coat die-ins’ as part of, and in solidarity with, the Black Lives Matter movement. Almost instantaneously, images began to circulate online, as thousands of future medical professionals, future healthcare providers, and their teachers put on their white coats, adorned themselves with signs and stethoscopes, and lay across the pristine, tiled floors of elite medical institutions. Collecting under the banner “We sow the seeds,” hundreds of bodies came together to play dead in one moving moment of mass mourning, a staged refusal of the foundational anti-blackness that, in the name of security, hygiene and health, continues to privilege white life, white futurity, and white prolongevity.

     These “white coat die-ins” were one in a long history of public protest and civil disobedience that has worked to confront and challenge the fact of anti-blackness in the spaces of everyday life. By organizing these events on medical campuses, however, the protestors chose not only to demand justice and police accountability, but simultaneously to implicate the biomedical complex as equally complicit in the long history of state-sanctioned violence responsible for the systemic debilitation of black life. For if the doctor cloaked in white coat, crowned with stethoscope, stands as a paradigmatic symbol of “savior” and “life provider”, so too is the medical institution, on principle, life-affirming [1]. These public performances thus illustrated both the bankruptcy of this discourse, whilst demanding that all onlookers pay due witness to the continued subjugation and dispossession of African Americans in one of America’s most sanctimonious public temples: the hospital [2].

     John Carlos Pasco, Camille Anderson, and Sayantani DasGuapta have since commented on this powerful “visual spectacle” to suggest that the students were involved in fostering “a new sort of epistemology of medical imagining; one that might be called: visionary medicine” (246). By contrast, Shiloh Krupar and Nadine Ehlers have described these images of “mass graves” as gesturing towards possibilities for “an abolitionist biomedicine” (italics author’s own, 233). Crucially both these critical responses locate the force of these protests in the fact that they look beyond a call for institutional change -– i.e. the reallocation and redistribution of resources — towards a more expansive, radical (re)imagining of racial justice. Yet, if the visionary serves necessarily to usher in the promissory, abolition promises nothing other than the total destruction of an ongoing present[2].

     Here I want to suggest that this temporal tension and affective dissonance takes on even greater significance within our contemporary moment where the insatiable, incessant drive for further speculation and innovation is fueling the entire field of biotech and biopharma. For even if one accepts that medicine has always been, and is always, a speculative practice, the unprecedented rise of the life sciences alongside the onset of neoliberal technologies of governance and rapid financialization has created a biomedical industry that depends on acts of speculation that have become self-valorizing [3]. Moreover, as materialist feminist scholarship on the life sciences increasingly documents, the clinical labor, affective labor, and exchange of bodily tissues that subtends this research continues to exploit the gendered and racialized body as a greatly expanded site for annexation, harvest, dispossession, and production[4]. This work thus identifies and names a (bio)economy of systemic, discriminatory violence that is only compounded by the fact that, just as one participant at the White Coats for Black Lives Matter protest identified: “working to improve housing and education, and eliminate structural oppression: these impact health as much as hydrochlorothiazide, a B blocker or metformin . . .”.  This crushing (even if relatively self-evident) insight raises real questions about the extent to which this highly medicalized biopolitics of racial debilitation might actually operate, in part, through exploitative labor practices that support continued investments in the inexhaustible promise of future cures and prophetic solutions.

Image result for white coats for black lives we were seeds    To return to the images of the #WhiteCoatsforBlackLives protests, it now becomes possible to read this dilemma into the compositions themselves. For, on the one hand, the banners brandished by some of the students — “we sow the seeds” and “we were seeds” — betray an undeniably necessary optimism for those alternate practices able to birth new promise and new life. Nevertheless, even the choice of phrase, “we were seeds” simultaneously raises the question: what is sown in the wake of black death? Moreover, this note of aspiration palpably brushes up against the fact of collective corporeal collapse. Looking again at the frozen, listless bodies forces the viewer to take pause; their very material presence functioning as a mounted impasse and and embodied blockade. In other words, a blockage in the conjectural grammar that defines the visionary and instead forces an abrupt return to a tortured extended present. A static, dead end. They thereby proffer one dramatic visualization of the fact that, within the current biomedical context, black lives are further imperiled and dispossessed in the very same moment that life, elsewhere, is affirmed, promised and secured. A visual equation of the cruel biopolitical violence that works by trading futures for futures. Or, as Jasbir Puar bluntly diagonses: “what bodies are made to pay for progress?”

Image result for white coats for black lives

     Indeed, as medical students and faculty members at ranked universities and training hospitals, the participants in the protests were surely highly aware of their status and embodiment as future capital: those with futures to gain from the continued production, cultivation, marketing and researching of health disparities. Thus, when framed against the racialized biopolitics of debilitation, #WhiteCoatsforBlackLives not only demonstrates the willingness of students to put their bodies on the line to protest police violence, but also prompts the ever-pressing question: What bodies are hung out to dry in an exploitative bioeconomy that sustains the production of more and more white coats? One possible kink in this — ever well-dressed — fantasy of futurity.

 

[1] Jackie Wang in Carceral Capitalism, and within the context of a discussion on predatory policing, outlines how within political systems centered on biopower “the power to kill or destroy life is not evacuated completely, but is subsumed and incorporated into a life-affirming discourse” (205).

[2] The long history of medicine’s “systematic exclusion” of black bodies “from public life” and “public health” (Krupar, 234) is no secret. Indeed, in ​The Philadelphia Negro – widely recognized as the first great empirical study of black life in North America — W. E. B. Du Bois includes a lengthy analysis of the health conditions of Philadelphia’s black population. Since then, other foundational, seminal works such as Harriet Washington’s​Medical Apartheid have continued to document the traffic in black bodies and black capabilities that has both subtended the history of medical innovation, and almost immortalized an African American health deficit.

[3] This is a discussion and distinction that must acknowledge its heavy debt to radical black feminist scholarship which has, in recent years, repeatedly turned to questions of grammar, tense and futurity to carefully ask: ‘what political work the future does?” (Smith, 216). Or as C. Ridley Snorton recently put it: what is “the temporality of radical potential?” I am suggesting that the question of futurity is particularly acute here, for even as Sara Smith and Pavithra Vasudevan warn that within our current economic and biopolitical climate “futurity is dangerous” (216), John Pasco helpfully reminds us that “medicine is necessarily always committing acts of speculation” (247).

[4] By this I mean that the speculative investments in biotech and “life itself” create surplus value through the anticipation of future discoveries. For instance, science studies scholar Mike Fortun documents how the entire business of genomics depends upon the “forward looking statement” in order to secure further investment and generate profit (140).

[5] For example, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Sarah Franklin, Kalindi Vora, Catherine Waldby and Melissa Cooper have all rigorously examined the material exchanges underpinning biomedical research to argue that outsourced labor across clinical trials, surrogacy, organ markets and service work routinely transmit reproductive bodily materials, life itself, and/or “vital energy” or  from “areas of life depletion to areas of life enrichment” (Vora, 3).

 

Works Cited

Charles, Dorothy, et al. “White coats for black lives: medical students responding to racism and police brutality.” ​Journal of urban health 92.6 (2015): 1007-1010.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. ​The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. No. 14. Published for the University, 1899

Fortun, Michael. “Mediated speculations in the genomics futures markets.” ​New Genetics and Society 20.2 (2001): 139-156.

Krupar, Shiloh, and Nadine Ehlers. “Biofutures: Race and the governance of health.” ​Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35.2 (2017): 222-240.

Pasco, John Carlo, Camille Anderson, and Sayantani DasGupta. “Visionary medicine: speculative fiction, racial justice and Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’.” ​Medical humanities 42.4 (2016): 246-251.

Puar, Jasbir K. ​The Right To Maim: Debility, capacity, disability. Duke University Press, 2017.

Smith, Sara, and Pavithra Vasudevan. “Race, biopolitics, and the future: Introduction to the special section.” ​Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35.2 (2017): 210-221.

Snorton, C. Riley. “The Temporality of Radical Potential?.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 25.1 (2019): 159-161

Wang, Jackie. ​Carceral Capitalism. Vol. 21. MIT Press, 2018.

Washington, Harriet A. ​Medical Apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. Doubleday Books, 2006.

 

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