In early June, I sat at my dining table in Amherst, Massachusetts and spoke on the phone with Laurel, a Black woman in her seventies who lives on Detroit’s west side. I’ve known Laurel since 2014. We met as I was watching the demolition of a house just down the street from her home, and our first afternoon together was spent watching an excavator operator scoop the building from its foundation. In the years since, I’ve gone to summer cookouts with Laurel’s family, helped her grandsons repaint the house, and retrieved diabetes medication from the pharmacy when she was unsure of driving
in the snow. But our recent conversation wasn’t just to catch up. We were talking in the midst of shared grief. Since late March, dozens of people who I came to know as part of my research on building demolitions in Detroit have been sick with symptoms of covid-19. Happily, most have recovered. Six did not, including one of Laurel’s neighbors. But the magnitude of my loss pales in
comparison to Laurel’s. She counts fifty-seven dead over the same period. Fifty-seven.
These disappeared people are only a snapshot of how covid-19 has ripped gaping holes in Detroit. It has cut similar shapes in most majority-Black, Latinx, and Indigenous locations in the United States. For many, these wounds have upended typical routines for grieving. This includes Laurel, who has said final goodbyes and watched caskets lowered into the earth through shaky video streams. We talked about the peonies blooming in her yard and the physically-distanced dance party happening on her block. Small moments of joy amidst overwhelming heartache. But as Laurel said, “I’m broken, but I’m not surprised. You know? The coronavirus came for us the same as the cops come for us.” Our conversation happened just after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, as well as in the wake of the murders of thousands of Black people, including Aura Rosser, Ahmaud Arbery, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Emmett Till, and Breonna Taylor. In the days since we spoke, police have killed Sean Monterossa, David McAtee, Tony McDade, and a dozen others. As Laurel suggests, the antiblack violence of police bullets and chokeholds is of a piece with the racist violence of uneven development, including profit-dependent medical care and ‘essential’ labor regimes.
Laurel’s orientation to Black death — “I’m broken, but I’m not surprised” — sits in stark contrast to the shocked exclamations that typically-white anthropologists have had to recentevents. In 2020, one of the emails I received with a statement of professed solidarity referred to instances of police brutality and racial disparities in covid-19 mortality as “a wakeup call.” If that is the case, it speaks to the how many of our colleagues, institutions, and professional organizations have been purposefully asleep. Violence against racially-oppressed people (especially but not limited to Black and Indigenous people) is the glue that binds together settler colonies, including the United States. This is not a new observation. Anthropologists and our comrades have made it for some time. Dana-Ain Davis, Audra Simpson, CLR James, Tiffany Lethabo King, WEB DuBois, Ruha Benjamin, Zora Neale Hurston, Savannah Shange, Melissa Burch, Deborah Thomas, Cedric Robinson, and more. If these scholars are unfamiliar to you, go read their work. Then cite and teach it.
As anthropologists, we specialize in illustrating the complexity of human existence. We do so through methods that make nuanced links across time and space. In my work, I examine how technical systems of environmental racism drive racial capitalism. I focus on the durable ways that white privilege is built from antiblack suffering, and I do this as a white man whose body is made from the very technologies of intergenerational plunder that I critique. As such, I say with
certainty that for the majority-white constituency of our discipline (and department), marching, reading, and planting Black Lives Matter signs in our yards does nothing to absolve us of our complicity in white supremacy. As literary scholar Christina Sharpe describes, antiblackness is a “total climate” . It is in the air, in the water, and in the soil. It accumulates through the places we live and the work we do. For those of us who benefit from whiteness to make good on our performative support for Black life, we must not only assist in abolishing antiblack practices, institutions, and political economic imperatives. We must also do the work to repair the harms that these practices, institutions, and imperatives have already made.
The horizon lines of this struggle are wide, but we also don’t need to venture far to find them. For instance, one of the Ann Arbor police officers who murdered Aura Rosser remains employed by the department . Policing consumes 27% of the municipal budget . Since 1988, the University of Michigan has maintained its own militarized police department . Anecdotally, it is one that harasses our students, coworkers, and neighbors of color, especially Black people. The University is currently constructing a satellite location in Detroit, the results of which are directly funding an expansion of policing and carceral institutions . Our $13 billion endowment was seeded by the theft and sale of Indigenous land . Who knows what percentage of it is still invested in the enabling work of antiblackness and intersecting regimes of colonial violence? To continue to do nothing on these fronts would be to accept the relative comfort of our positions as a reasonable excuse for the racist containment and dispossession of others.
I don’t expect to return to Ann Arbor for some time. My move to Amherst is permanent since I am lucky to be starting a job here in the fall. All the same, I think anthropologists face a stark choice. It is a choice we faced even before a pandemic illness collided with the racist geographies of the United States, but our current historical conjuncture thrusts the stakes of our decision into relief. Whether
as a department or as a discipline, we can attempt to cling to the imperial tenets of our craft, casting our lots in with those who claim to uphold “order” and the “rule of law.” Or, we can re-tune our methods and modes of analysis for work that seeks deliberately to prove useful in the abolition of white supremacy. Doing so would necessitate first addressing the climates of antiblackness and Indigenous erasure that remain at the center of our collective projects. There is no excuse for another wakeup call.
For those who are able to take immediate steps, consider:
Financially supporting mutual aid, including for people in Washtenaw County (https://tinyurl.com/y946xvvf), formerly incarcerated people in Michigan (https://tinyurl.com/vvkbpqe), and American Indian Health and Family Services of Southeastern Michigan (https://tinyurl.com/ybrhcvff).
Financially supporting victims of police brutality in Michigan, including through the
Detroit Justice Center’s Bail Project (https://www.detroitjustice.org/the-bail-project) and volunteering through their street and jail support teams (https://tinyurl.com/y9llh7qr).
Vocally supporting the abolition of policing on campus, as well as in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw
County, including by signing the petition for UM to cut ties with AAPD (http://chng.it/6Pvtbbh4Nr). There is a crowd-sourced list of further local actions and aid requests (https://bit.ly/geoblmresources). Also consider reading and financially
supporting Black Ink (https://black-ink.info/)
 Sharpe, Christina (2016). In the wake: on blackness and being. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 21, 104-107.
 Hao, Claire and Calder Lewis (2020). “Hundreds march through Ann Arbor neighborhoods
in protest of police brutality.” The Michigan Daily. June 4. https://tinyurl.com/y9hdqwhe
 City of Ann Arbor, FY 20-21 Budget Process. https://tinyurl.com/y8dspvk3
 University of Michigan DPSS. Our Departments: Police. https://www.dpss.umich.edu/content/about/our-departments/police/
 Regester, Craig, with Stephen Ward and Marion Van Dam (2019). “Questioning the UM Detroit Center for Innovation Initiative.” Statement from UM Semester in Detroit. https://tinyurl.com/teajw2k
 University of Michigan (1888). The semi-centennial celebration. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, pp.154-155. See also: Sourine, Katerina (2018). “Native Americans at the University lament a contract unfulfilled.” The Michigan Daily. October 8. https://tinyurl.com/y855eyn8