Justine Sacco’s tweet not wrong, because we would never let white people die at those rates

Director of Corporate Communications at IAC — the parent company of Match.com, About.com, OkCupid, College Humor, BlackPeopleMeet.com, and The Daily Beast — Justine Sacco tweeted the following racist “joke” Friday morning:

Sacco has since been fired from her PR post at IAD, no doubt because Twitter and Facebook (and the blogosphere) are aflame with reactions to Sacco’s racially-charged comment about the likelihood of Black bodies contracting AIDS. The tweet went viral while Sacco was in-flight; in fact, it incited so much outrage that her critics were actually tracking the flight — anticipating when Sacco would again step foot on solid ground, where she could be held accountable for her comment — making the most popular trending hashtag Friday on Twitter “#HasJustineLandedYet”.

Sacco’s Twitter comment is dripped in first-world white privilege, and this privilege is telling: sure white people are just as genetically “capable” of contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS; but if white bodies were actually dying from AIDS at the same rates as Black African bodies, would the (first) world let it happen? Would we stand back and abandon the good white folk of Europe or America to die? Would we linger so long to find a cure that might save these white bodies from a Black death?

When Hitler attempted to exterminate a seemingly “inferior” white race of Jewish people, the world took notice and declared a genocide and a war against Nazi Germany. The European powers-that-be even “gave” the surviving Jewish people a “homeland” to call their own; and while the impulse to export all Jewish bodies to a different place and time is itself a racially-motivated exclusion from Europe’s (white) body politic, the deportation of the Jewish people to Palestine qualifies as an attempt to save these people from being killed with impunity in anti-Semitic Europe (even if that meant that they had to displace the Palestinians to do it). Stated another way, the Jewish people were never denied what Fanon calls “ontological resistance”; they still qualify as “people”, and as people with inalienable human rights, they are not (were never) supposed to die.

But the same is not true for bodies epidermally and irredeemably marked as Black. As Frank Wilderson notes by way of contrast, Black bodies went into the slave ships as African and came out as Black, which is to say, as fungible non-human “things”; and not just fungible or expendable in the new world, but everywhere. To borrow from Audre Lorde in “Apartheid USA” (1986), the world order in which we live is committed to (and inaugurated itself on) “making sure Black people die” because Black bodies are “dirty and Black and obnoxious and Black and arrogant and Black and poor and Black and Black and Black and Black” (68). Every day, 6,000 Africans die from AIDS and another 11,000 are infected with the HIV virus; which is why, though Sacco’s tweet is problematic for a whole host of reasons, it also offers a kernel of truth that we would be remiss to overlook: white bodies would never be abandoned by the (white) world to die in these numbers. 

When the white body is under attack (for example, by an immune-compromising virus), we interpret this as an attack on the body politic, and we respond forcefully to protect its/our right to exist. But when the Black body is under attack, we sit back and watch: we enjoy ourselves. We take a picnic (the etymology of which means “pick a n****r”). We spectacularize the strange fruit that hangs from the lynching tree, and perhaps even take a piece of its flesh home as a keepsake. We don’t let Black death ruin our day, let alone cause a national or international panic. At best, Black death might illicit a GOP politician to respond with, “That’s just the way God works”, or prompt European and American policy makers to send humanitarian aid workers to Africa to play white man’s (or woman’s) burden for a few weeks (or years); but — let’s be clear — this “work” is geared towards the benefit of the activist-humanitarians who are asked to take it up, not the Black bodies these activists are supposed to be “saving”. 

Sacco’s tweet gives me pause for another reason as well: I was reminded by her post that the mythical origin of AIDS is located in the copulation of (white) man and ape somewhere deep in the dark continent. The logical conclusion of this interpretation — one that privileges the origin story of AIDS — is seriously alarming. Indeed, it could very well be argued that AIDS “belongs” to the Black body as an effect of the fact that the disease originated in the ape. Some of you may remember a 2008 Stanford University study that exposed the fact that most white people still think about Black bodies as “ape-like”. The study is chronicled in an article for Pacific Standard Magazine as one in which

The participants were “primed” with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.

The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.

The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.

The lead author of the study, Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of psychology (who identifies as Black), says he was so disturbed by the results — which demonstrate how quickly white audiences confuse Black bodies with ape bodies — that he “hid under the covers” for two days “sick and depressed,” and that when he left his apartment, he “felt like everyone looking at [him] would see a monkey.”  In its coverage of the study, Pacific Standard notes that

In follow-up tests, Goff and his colleagues tried to pinpoint the source of the association. Perhaps, they theorized, Americans associate blacks not with apes per se; perhaps the association was of blacks with Africa, and Africa with apes. But a study that attempted to establish a link between African men and the big cats that reside on that continent failed to do so. Instead, it confirmed that the association is with apes.

…Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious.

These results don’t just paint an abstract picture of how Americans map epidermal Blackness onto the other-wordly, non-human features of apes; the study also traces police and state violence against Black bodies to the assumed ape-like quality of these bodies. Goff reflects that, “Among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death“; and, “The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified.” It’s clear that the reason we maim and mangle Black bodies with impunity is because we still don’t think about these bodies as human; or better yet, because we think about Black bodies the way one might think about an animal that must be put down if it cannot be contained (which is why I have argued elsewhere that Animal Studies shares an interest with Afro-pesimism: both aim to dismantle the discourse of humanism and to secure the living conditions of non-human bodies).

Sacco’s association between Black bodies and AIDS (and Africa) is an effect of this ontological assumption about the origin of AIDS. Her tweet exposes a hard truth: the (white) world — the world with money and resources and the ability to make a difference — is complicit in the erasure of Black Africans dying from exposure to HIV/AIDS; and further still, that this (white) world is premised on the erasure of non-human bodies. I invite those of you in the “know” (and you know who you are — white liberals, I am not talking to you) to expose the many openings and fissures Sacco’s tweet makes available in the interest of interrogating the exclusionary nature of a humanist discourse. Who gets to live and who — in a reversal of Foucault’s famous observation — is made to die is not just a question of race; it is also a question of species. Anti-Black racism is also speciesism, because despite the fact that science has gone to great lengths to prove that there exists more genetic difference within a race than genetic difference between races, the association between Blackness and animality is a subconscious association, one that is built and housed in the imaginary.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.