Publication Details

Krupar, S. and Ehlers, N. (2013). Target: biomedicine and racialized geo-body-politics. Occasion, 8 1-25.

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On August 1, 1896, W. E. B. Du Bois began a fifteen-month sociological study of "forty thousand or more people of Negro blood . . . living in the city of Philadelphia." Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), this work is widely recognized as the first great empirical book on black life in American society. Part of Du Bois' study included an analysis of the health conditions of Philadelphia's black population and might be seen as an example of a race-specific biopolitics of health. For Michel Foucault, biopolitics is that form of power arising in the late eighteenth century that "deals with the population as a political problem" and focuses on "taking control of life and the biological processes of man-as-species" in order to achieve a state of equilibrium within that population. To achieve this, "security mechanisms have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings so as to optimize a state of life." The biopolitics of health made the population a target of social welfare via the administration of public health. The aim of such administration was to regulate the processes of life, affirm and proliferate the life of the population, to make the "biological citizens" of the nation live more. What Du Bois makes clear,however, is that this administration of biological life and health - the biopolitics of health - has been "cut" by racism and entrenched racial disparities. Different segments of the population have been governed in distinct ways, and white lives have been affirmed and made to live in ways that black lives have not. Black subjects, indeed, have been subjected to what Henry A. Giroux has named a "biopolitics of disposability" - where entire populations are marginalized by race and are socially and environmentally excluded from the attainment of health and from the arena of a pastoral public health.