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Book and Media
Review by Kenya Loud, Yale University, Email: email@example.com
Keywords: Anti-Racism; Black Feminism; Health Disparities
In the 2021 book, Sickening: Anti-Black Racism and Health Disparities in the United States, Ann Pollock identifies twenty-first century examples of phenomena that exist in the United States at the intersectionality of racism, class, social status, and health disparities. Through this exploration, the author contextualizes recent complexities involving health disparities in the African American community. Pollock contends that the notion of unequal vulnerability is not new “in our racist societies.” Moreover, she provides the reader with the opportunity to step outside of the constantly churning and relentless current mainstream news cycle and engage in critical reflection of the past. It is through this return to the past, that the reader may participate in what the author describes as “considered analysis”– ruptures that attune us to the historical ramifications of systematic and institutional racism. As a professor of biomedicine, culture, technology and race, she utilizes six distinct examples to accomplish two primary objectives: (a) to provide a point of entrance for those less familiar with the intersection of race and health, and (b) to provide an interdisciplinary text that may bolster discourse surrounding these layered topics.
Pollock’s self-described positionality is noteworthy, as it directly influences whom she is in conversation with the text. Currently residing in London, England, Pollock was born in rural Michigan but “moved to cities on the East Coast and in the South for education and work” (p.15). Self-identifying as a white and lesbian woman whose years of activism surrounding feminist, queer, anti-war and anti-racism has yielded formative interactions, Pollock provides an expanded group of interlocutors–those whom she allows to contribute to the conversation– that is clearly delineated in the book. Thus, Pollock intentionally draws from these interlocutors within the text, as opposed to relegating them to the notes section. As a result of this intentional practice, the author guides the reader through interdisciplinary conversations with an array of scholars of color such as Evelyn Hammonds, Camara Jones, Zenzi Bailey, Ruha Benjamin, Nadine Ehlers, Shiloh Krupar, Melissa Harris Perry, Amy Alexander, Veena Das, Ruth Nicole Brown, among others. The resounding voices of women, particularly women of color, echo through the text, “to characterize and invite readers into ongoing academic conversations of potential interest” (p. 4).
The six chapters of this book chronologically progress through the Twenty first century beginning with the October 21, 2001, deaths of two African American postal workers, Thomas Morris and Joseph Curseen, who died from anthrax
exposure. Both men were exposed to anthrax while performing jobs as mailmen at a Washington, D. C. post office branch. The chapter begins with the transcript of the 911 phone call made by Morris, in which he identifies a self diagnosis of potential exposure to anthrax due to labored breathing. In this chapter, Pollock highlights the dichotomies of citizenship in the United States surrounding race,class, and positionality by underscoring that, “the class character of the workers at the Brentwood facility cannot be divorced from their race” (p. 27).
Furthermore, I felt particularly drawn to the story of Scott– a third Black man, who worked alongside both Morris and Curseen in the D.C facility, but survived anthrax exposure due to his daughter’s access to medical advice outside of the context of the hospital Scott was admitted to. It is here that we see how ruptures along race, health, and class are created through access.
Pollock builds on the conversation of worthy access in chapter 2 by revisiting the “Un/natural disaster” of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In a way that I have not yet seen done, the author examines the nexus between access to treatment in racialized populations, the ability of the pharmaceutical entities to “make” disease, and the “association between blackness and infectious disease as opposed to chronic” (p. 54).
Another thread that Pollock disentangles in chapter 2 is the inherent criminality that is historically associated with African Americans. In consideration of the practices surrounding medication at the Superdome, Pollock argues that “enforcingdrug policies framed the racialized population of Katrina’s survivors not as members of the community in need of care but as potential criminals in need of control” (p.46). She further makes linkages to the criminalization of African Americans in chapters 3 through 6 by discussing the story of the Scott Sisters and the expanding carceral state, the preference over machines than lives during the Flint water crisis, a 2014 suburban pool altercation in McKinney, Texas, which includes the physical assault of a teenage Black girl in a bikini and Serena Williams’s 2018 near fatal birth experience.
The chapter two stories of the Scott Sisters considers both biological and therapeutic citizenship as a way of exposing larger issues with geographical control and worthiness of access. Pollock then uses Serena Williams with her abundance of resources to demonstrate that medical protection and advocacy, although also delineated along the lines of class and socio-economic status, cannot be divorced from race-related biases. Chapters 4 and 5 critique understandings of technologies as windows into racial biopolitics. In Flint, the provision of clean water to maintain machinery, and the absence of consideration of the lives of the city’s residents, demonstrates the re-ordering of prioritization of needs (p. 87). While Pollock contends that the technologies of a suburban pool, a
bikini and a police uniform provide a twenty-first century STS connection to historical geographical policing that structures race, place and space as, “Health is a capacious category, inextricable from the entire social world” (P. 3).
Conclusively, this book has the potential to be a teaching tool within the undergraduate classroom, to spark an array of interdisciplinary discussions, which may be the book’s most meaningful contribution. In the last pages of her conclusion, Pollock details an adaptive assignment for “considered analysis” that is dissected in four key steps: (1) Map out the Terrain: Look across Scales (2) Inform Your Account: Read (3) Enrich Your Analytical Frame: Add Layers of Analysis and (4) Write Your Account. The combination of detailing this four-step process along with its juxtaposition with the layered intersectional analysis of the six main chapters creates a powerful learning and teaching experience. Ultimately, Sickening: Anti-Black Racism and Health Disparities in the United States is successful in combining layers of scaled analysis and attention to power with the intentionality of foregrounding the Black Feminist voice.
This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.
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