Rebecca Kukla and Sarah S. Richardson have co-written a piece over at HuffPo:
Amidst the raft of deaths of African-American men at the hands of police that has captured the nation’s attention recently, we have seen repeated descriptions of the purportedly enormous size of several of the victims; indeed their size has been cited as an explanation for their death. Darren Wilson — himself 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds –testified regarding 6-foot-4, 292-pound Michael Brown, “[W]hen I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. … [T]hat’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was estimated by the officers who killed him to be “maybe 20.” On CNN’s The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer last Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-New York) asserted that Eric Garner’s death by chokehold at the hands of a policeman was due not to his race but to his obesity: “If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this.”
. . .Obesity interacts with race and gender to amplify stigma. It can magnify the already powerful stereotypes of the dangerous black man and the not-so-innocent black male youth. A recent study found that police officers tend to view black boys as young as 10 as older, larger, and less innocent than their white peers. Obesity and race combine to help code which bodies are blamed for their own demise. Imagine switching the race, gender, and size of the recent victims of deadly police force. We would be unlikely to excuse an officer’s use of lethal force against an unusually petite white woman on the grounds that he was just treating her as he would any normal person he needed to restrain. We fear that obese African-American bodies are seen as less worthy and easier to kill in the first place, and then morally responsible for their own deaths just in virtue of their material existence.
5 thoughts on “‘Eric Garner and the Value of Black Obese Bodies’”
I wish this hadn’t been posted here — or anywhere else. To impose a central concern with obesity bias (“Yet empirical evidence does not support the idea that fatness is a product of individual moral weakness”) on ‘black lives matter’ awareness is embarrassing and even disrespectful.
The piece is about the intersection of race, gender, and size; it is not an erasure of race. Surely good-quality attention to black lives mattering includes attention to the stigmas and vectors of oppression that (sometimes lethally) compound racial disadvantage.
RK: My comment neither claimed nor implied anything about your piece representing “an erasure of race.”
The piece did not make any plausible case that obesity bias, regarding the conduct at issue, “compound[s] racial disadvantage.” Indeed, the piece took seriously a seemingly absurd rationalization, namely, “size” — when there’s no reason to believe this is a significant factor in police and parapolice killings of black men, including Eric Garner. But the piece might be another testament to the disadvantages of working in a philosophy profession and in departments lacking racial diversity.
Thanks to Feminist Philosophers for highlighting our piece! Anon, I find your comment needlessly combative. Based on your comments, I think it’s highly possible that you didn’t click through and read the whole article, but just read the excerpt? Nonetheless I’ll address your points.
1. You say: “To impose a central concern with obesity bias (“Yet empirical evidence does not support the idea that fatness is a product of individual moral weakness”) on ‘black lives matter’ awareness is embarrassing and even disrespectful.”
Our piece addresses he comments of people like Rep. King and the policeman on online discussion boards who insist that the Eric Garner case is *not* about race because he was obese. So, obesity is already part of the discussion in the Eric Garner case. We are addressing it by showing that obesity does not obviate the role of race. Our focus is not on obesity instead of race, but on race as it intersects with gender and obesity in this case. While I take very seriously your point that addressing the discourse about obesity and Eric Garner could give more discursive space to obesity than the most salient issue which is that “black lives matter,” I value intersectional analysis of oppression and do not agree that it supplants a focus on race.
2. You say: “the piece took seriously a seemingly absurd rationalization, namely, “size” — when there’s no reason to believe this is a significant factor in police and parapolice killings of black men, including Eric Garner.”
In the article, we cite the study showing the link between perceptions of largeness and lack of innocence in black boys and police abuse. We also cite other examples of amplified estimates of size in the case of policing killings of black men. So there is reason to think this is a factor worthy of analysis. In fact, I take it as well established that perceptions of obesity are a source of class- and race-inflected stigma contributing to human oppression in American society.
In your closing remarks you mention the culture of philosophy and its many problems – I think one of them is this kind of adversarial form of argumentation.
SR: Thank you for trying to explain things to me — though I did “click through and read the whole article.”
I stand by the content and the tone of my comments. Like many Black Americans after Ferguson and Garner, I honestly can’t say I’m disturbed by your finding the expression of my perspective “needlessly combative” and “adversarial.” But I was not engaged in “argumentation” here.
I do appreciate the latitude to express my perspective in this space and will now move on.
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