‘National socialism regards degeneracy as an immensely important source of criminal activity… In an individual, degeneracy signifies exclusion from the normal genus of the decent nation. The state of being degenerate or egenerate, this different or alien and quality, tends to be rooted in miscegenation Between a decent representative of his race and an individual of inferior racial stock. To us National Socialists, criminal biology or the theory of congenital criminality, connotes a link between racial decadence and criminal manifestations‘ Hans Frank (1938).

Case study: David ‘Rocky’ Bennett

‘In 1998 mental health patient David ‘Rocky’ Bennett, a Black Rastafarian man, was killed while physically restrained on a psychiatric ward. This death had a seismic cultural impact for those in the mental health system. The independent inquiry found that David had died as a direct result of prolonged face-down physical restraint and because of the amount of force used by five members of staff. David had been restrained, again, face-down, on the floor for 25 minutes. Restrained in what is called a ‘prone position’. A position only to be used for the shortest of instances to minimise the risk of injury or death. Three minutes was eventually recommended by the inquiry. The inquiry into David’s death found a catalogue of failings including the stereotyping of David. It also showed that there was no real attempt to engage with his family as part of the treatment of his ‘psychosis’ diagnosis during a period of almost 20 years. David was repeatedly treated as ‘a nuisance to be contained’ by over-medication. His cultural, social, and religious needs were not considered when viewing his reactions and experiences on the ward […]

The findings of the inquiry were published around the time I was starting up as a mental health professional. I have repeatedly imagined what the scene might have been like as he lay on the floor as his life slipping away. I imagined him thrashing about trying to break free. I imagined him gasping for air and repeatedly pleading for his life. David was killed in a way that painfully and eerily echoes the death of George Floyd in the United States. I can easily imagine David saying, ‘I can’t breathe’, however muffled his voice might have been. There is evidence that, like George Floyd, David was heard saying, ‘they are trying to kill me’.

Living While Black

The starting point of this article is a brief excerpt of chapter two of Living While Black. The chapter deals with white supremacy and black mental health. David Rocky Bennett’s death provides the human context for our article. It is the story I would like you to hold in mind as we explore the intersection of disability and anti-blackness that I am proposing — at least for now — to refer to as negrableism. An intersection which we are reminded by the words of Nazi Hans Frank, lays at the centre of genocidal violence.

It’s important to remember however that David’s story is the story of many others, so many other black men, in particular. It is also a story that speaks so profoundly to the mental health inequalities society continues to grapple with today. These include black people being more likely to be institutionalised or detained under mental health legislation, black people being more likely to be coercively ‘treated’, black people being more likely to access mental health ‘care’ through the involvement of the police or criminal justice system. And black people being more likely to seen as dangerous or be criminalised. Black people being more likely to be diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’. There are decades of empirical studies to support these claims, and so I hope they need no introduction.

To add to these, we now have newer data that shows that people with mental health problems may be up to 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. At least in the US. And, just early in the week, a study by the Independent Office for Police Conduct found police officers not only deploy their taser stun guns much more frequently with black people, but they also deploy them for longer, in the U.K. Of particular relevance here, the researchers found that the intersection of race and mental health and/or disability can increase the risk of higher level use of force.

White supremacy and intersectionality

Let us start with a few fundamentals. Race though, a social ‘construct’, continues to determine resource allocation along a fantasised racial hierarchy. Anti-blackness is one of the fundamental pillars of white supremacy. It constructs black people — the ultimate Other — as unequivocally inferior and ‘primitive’. Constructions of blackness are the edifice upon which white supremacy became constructed, they are therefore the glue that sustains the structure of whiteness.

The emergence of race thinking, or racial stratification came with the commodification of Black people to amass wealth, land and power therefore, white supremacy is inexorably linked to 1) class oppression and social inequality and, related to this 2) the expansion of capitalism and materialism which required 3) a particular instrumentalisation of the black and brown body (relying in particular, on both misogynistic and ableist logics, which we will explore below).

There is thus little doubt that interrogating the impact of different systems of oppression and the everyday workings of power in our lives requires us to explore the unique ways these systems come together and reproduce particular relational patterns and social configurations and outcomes. Here are some further basic facts which I hope we can also all agree on 4) social outcomes are multi-factorial. 5) factors — even taking a more positivist and scientific perspective — often interact 6) these interactions will invariably shape outcomes. If you understand these six foundational premises, we’re on our way to grasping the importance of intersectional thinking.

It was African American law Professor and feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term intersectionality to conceptualise how different axes of oppression or identity combine and create specific patterns of discrimination that cumulate into patterns of structural harm and vulnerability that are often missed within mainstream equality campaigns, feminism, and activism. These patterns of discrimination may be the combinations of stereotypes, social expectations, institutional arrangements and/or historical configurations.

Intersectionality is itself an intersectional baby. It is the child we may say, of critical legal studies and black feminism. It came about to highlight gaps in the justice system requiring discrimination to be claimed linearly and singularly on the basis of gender and/or on the basis of race. That is to say, not cumulatively. In other words, the case for intersectionality became a case because claiming discrimination on the basis of being both black and woman, at the same time was (and is still, at least in the U.K.) a legal impossibility. Despite us, black women, continuing to face discrimination not only because we are black or because we are women but often, because we are both.

Intersectionality is not a grand theory or a model and Crenshaw makes this clear. Rather, it is an analytical framework, or we may say a set of lenses to help us see and understand the varying patterns of vulnerability and risks created and missed when we are oblivious to the ways combined systems of oppression (e.g., gender, race, sexuality, class, age, religion, and disability) may collude, merge and mutually reinforce one another. It is in the collusion that particular risks and vulnerabilities to subordination, exclusion, discrimination and state violence lie.

Intersectionality has received a great deal of criticisms over the years. In part because of its adjacency to the Devil’s child that is critical race theory, I hope you’ve heard. Ironically — or not — a great deal of these criticisms are themselves grounded in anti-blackness and in misogyny and could therefore do with an intersectional analysis. There are indeed many who continue to oppose the concept because of where it originates from, that is to say, who came up with it; what it allows us to see in the social world, and therefore whose experiences it makes visible.

Of course, we can legitimately argue not everything is intersectional, and indeed not everything is intersectional. This is not a popular thing to say these days, but we should have no qualms saying so. For example, if I am black gay man — assuming no other visible marginalised identities — and a restaurant refuses me service and but staff are genuinely clueless about my sexuality, the discrimination was not intersectional (the impact and the response to the mistreatment may well be though).

Intersectionality has therefore always been about visibility and about harm. That is to say, about making visible patterns of structural harm hidden behind conventional ways of thinking and organising social systems. To me at least, intersectionality is about precision of analysis or clarity of theorisation and so that more precise and therefore effective social justice interventions and praxes may be put in place. As such, I continue to think it is an indispensable conceptual tool to social justice artilleries, despite abuse, overuse, and perversion of the concept. No conceptual tool is free of limitations. Nonetheless, to assess opposition to the concept, I’d invite you to return to the six foundational premises we laid down at the start and go from there.

When misogyny meets anti-blackness

The term misogynoir is an application of intersectional thinking. Coined by Black feminist scholar and cultural theorist, Moya Bailey; it seeks to describe ‘the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women’ and provides a framework to explore how misogyny intersects with anti-black racism and leads to patterns of harm uniquely affecting Black women. The hyper- sexualisation of black women’s bodies, the policing of our hair and skin tone, the weaponisation of our (legitimate) anger and us being stereotyped as aggressive all taps in equal measures, into the colonial constructions of bestiality, of dangerousness and of primitivity as well as the mysogynistic and status-quo preserving notions that it is unfeminine or socially unacceptable for women to express anger, to be assertive, to be sexual or to protest.

Bailey traced the origins of mysogynoir to constructions of black womanhood through the ages linking her theorisation to Professor Patricia Hill-Collins, (Professor of Sociology and black feminist theorist)’ ‘controlling images’. ‘Controlling images’ are stereotypes, tropes, cultural stories, or social discourses that have been used through history to restrict Black women’s freedom and maintain white capitalist patriarchal interests. They include;

The mammy

The controlling image of the mammy portrays Black women as obedient, asexual, and undesirable but as dedicated to caring for her white master and his family.

The matriarch

The matriarch controlling image is that of the dominant, aggressive, and overbearing Black woman who is both a failed mother and a failed wife. The matriarch ‘emasculates’ Black men and drives them away. She is therefore responsible for breakdown in black family structures.

The welfare mother

The welfare mother is all about unrestrained procreation. She has lots of children she cannot afford and depends on the welfare state to feed them. She is as a result singlehandedly responsible for poverty in black communities.

The Jezebel

The final controlling image is that of Jezebel. The Jezebel is all about sex. She is sexually aggressive and promiscuous. She exists for the sexual satisfaction of men and is therefore deserving of sexual abuse and exploitation she may experience.

The point of revisiting the ‘controlling images’ is twofold. It is firstly to see how white supremacy has required the use of mysogyny to sustain the changing but still racialised social order — as a reminder, black women often significantly outnumbered men in ‘new worlds’ as their wombs and procreations through breeding practices, provided the capital which kept the system going — and secondly, it is to make visible how those intersectional tropes continue to shape the treatment and, perception of black woman today. How they restrict our freedom and render us vulnerable to violence and marginalisation.

In the same spirit, I have proposed the term negrableism as the application of intersectional thinking to the meeting of ableism and anti-blackness. Here we may say negrableism is the specific hatred, fear, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black disabled people AND the patterns of structural disadvantage black disabled people face because of the intersection of anti-black racism and ableism.

As far as historical and socio-political context, a chronology of key events and processes may help frame the argument. The point of the section below is not to provide an exhaustive history but to draw parallels between constructions of disability and constructions of race so we can start to see more clearly that intersection.

Historical periods and associated treatment and constructions

Greek Empire

*Beauty and intelligence are seen as fundamentally intertwined.

Roman Empire

*Disabled people are constructed as inferior beings.

*Disability is seen as a mark of god’s wrath.

Middle Ages

*Disabled people are linked to the devil and supernatural forces.

Renaissance

*Creation of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, Europe’s first psychiatric hospital in the U.K.

*Widespread institutionalisation of disabled people.

1700 – 1800s  

*Start of the industrial revolution.

*Not being able to work is seen to produce social outcasts.

Early to mid Twentieth Century

*Those deemed mentally or physically ‘defective’ or unable to earn a living are subject to stringent state and border control and immigration restrictions.

*Fear of contamination, miscegenation, and social ‘degeneration’.

*Mental hygiene drives to cleanse society of its unwanted elements.

*Genealogy and the genetic turn and creation of banks of people with mental health problems.

*Sterilisation and medical murder of those diagnosed with certain disabilities and mental health conditions.

*The rise of Third Reich, Nazism, fascism, and the Master Race doctrine

*Scientific experimentation, torture, and genocidal violence/Holocaust

Mid Twentieth century to today

*Protective legislations but…difficulties successfully claiming discrimination.

*Social discourses of inclusion but… widespread social and structural disadvantage and normalisation of ableism e.g., termination rates of foetuses predicted to be disabled rocket high.

*Welfare state but…violence enacted through work capacity assessments.

*Stark disability-related inequalities in the criminal justice system… people with cognitive impairments, mental health conditions and who are neurodivergent are overrepresented.

*Stark race inequalities in the mental health system and criminal justice system with black people significantly overrepresented.

Whiteness, labour and Eugenics  

Although colonial logics did not strictly speaking give birth to ableism since ableism clearly precedes colonial and imperial constructions of race (which in the main took hold the early to mid 17th century), their constructions of the body and its instrumentalisation in relation to capital acquisition, shaped ableist violence and vice-versa.

For example, the breeding of slaves supported by social Darwinism encouraged particular traits such as strength and endurance whilst seeking to disappear from the gene pool disability or sickness in order to build more ‘robust’ slaves, better suited for hard labour.

These were attempts at social cleansing. Whitening practices, equally, sought to produce the superior race by disappearing blackness from a number of colonial territories. Finally, disabled Africans and those who were unable to work were put to death once more making the links between eugenics and colonial logics undeniable.

Africans were put to death specifically because they became persona non-grata, in the same way the industrial revolution led to disabled people being seeing as socio-economic outcasts or ‘degenerates’ thus surplus to requirements within capitalist systems. Similarly, as the incapacity to work became increasingly criminalised, criminality became increasingly associated with race. Initially through the racialisation of the Irish and Roma people then later, that of black people.

The complicity of the sciences of the minds

A potent illustration of the intersection of these logics can be seen through nazism and medical racism — which let’s face it, are having a bit of a moment presently — whereby both disabled people and ‘inferior races’ were seen as social threats, as the product of miscegenation pausing risk of contamination. Both groups were therefore subjected to control measures, hygiene politics and eventually mass murder and genocide.

Psychiatric and psychological frameworks played a central role here and in more ways than this article has space to cover; even though this history is often disowned. Psychiatry and psychology have long functioned as guardians of the social order and with that naturally became invested in ensuring the promulgation of ableist and racist thinking both as social systems in their own rights, but also as structures subject to the influence of the wider forces of society.

As such, not only did criminality and insanity or social deviancy became the dominant concern of mental health professions pretty much since inception, the ideas of degeneration, lunacy and racial inferiority were both normalised within mental health thinking, and formed the basis of everyday practices. As did a concern for conformity to the social order and thus to white, patriarchal and colonial logics. As an illustration, the scientific explanation for Down syndrome was racial. People with the condition were posited by psychiatry to be ‘racial throwbacks’ to Ethiopian, Malay and Mongolian racial types. The aetiology or cause of the learning disability was thus hypothesised to be a genetic abnormality leading to what was essentially seen as a racial degeneration.

Negrableism or when anti-blackness meets ableism

Again, the point of reviewing this history was to draw parallels between race and disability and to try to extract key constructions related to disability which have the potential to intersect with racial constructions and thus lead to increased risks of harm. Based on the above we may suggest them as follow:

Infantilisation

The constructions of black and colonised bodies as forever children needing guidance, saving, instructing by white paternalism, remain. This infantilisation also exists in disability thinking. When we’re dealing with a child, we know better. There is no need to consult them or their family, who are equally seen to be children. Their consent becomes an non-issue.

Degeneracy

Notion of degeneracy although disowned in the main, continues to shape how mental health services deal with black people, particularly black people with diagnoses of psychosis. Expectations can be low. It is not unusual for mental health professionals to view schizophrenia as a neurodegenerative disease, for example. The elevated rates of institutionalisation take us straight back to the social alien and outcast needing containment lest they pose risk to the social order, corrupt or contaminate others.

Dangerousness

We have seen that disability has a long history of being framed as dangerous. Genetically, socially, intellectually or even spiritually. The association between dangerousness and blackness is one of the most troublesome when it comes to criminal justice, law enforcement and mental health systems. This alleged dangerousness is wrapped up around white projections of aggression, notions of bestiality and out of control-ness. It is this construction that leads to control and restraint measures and freedom deprivation disproportionately used when mental health services deal with black people. This construction was central to the colonial endeavour of course and the need to tame, to control and domesticate the dangerous and wild Other.

Superhumanisation

Related to constructions of dangerosity; is an element of magical thinking in the way statutory services deal with and perceive of black people. This takes us to magico-spiritual beliefs around devil, monsters and supernatural phenomena we saw early in the timeline of disability constructions (Middle Ages). Such fears are perceivable today through the superhumanisation of black men in particular, the widespread belief that they have god-like physical power or strength or, that black people feel no pain. Belief systems that lead to over-medication of psychotropics and under-medication of pain medication and to many young black men like David Bennett being restrained for dangerously extended periods of time by three, four, five men; in position of power and often armed with weapons.

Concluding thoughts

There are very few processes, drives or social discourses that have applied to disabled people which have not been applied or continue to be applied to black people and vice versa. The capacity (or incapacity) to labour and to be used for the purpose of white patriarchal capitalist interests lays at the centre of both colonial logics and ableism. Negrableism is the intersection of ableism and anti-blackness. It leads to hatred, fear, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black disabled people AND the patterns of structural disadvantage black disabled people face. Reviewing constructions of disability and mapping them onto racial logics we have suggested that 1) infantilisation 2) degeneracy 3) dangerousness and 4) superhumanisation are constructions that lead to patterns of structural harm black disabled people, particularly people disabled because of mental ill health are at risk of, because they sit at intersection of anti-black racism and ableism. Negrableism is the term I have suggested to make that specific intersection visible.

Thank you for reading

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6 thoughts

  1. Hello Guilaine, many thanks for this and it was also fascinating following your writing process as you tweeted through the weekend! I hope you may allow a reply that was written before I read your piece – but my mind was also on David Bennett these last couple of weeks and the echo of ‘I can’t breathe’ down through the grim years…though what got me particularly started was Johnson’s racist reference to ‘hi-vis chain gangs’ – anyway, please accept this offered with respect as an echo of what you have set out. With best wishes. John Adlam (@Diogenesquely)

    1. Thank Adam, your engagement is appreciated. I have not followed the latest Johnson debauchery…plenty to go round already. I shall take to visit your blog and do some reading when I get the chance. Best wishes and thanks again.

      1. Thank you, and a PS: with your permission, I would like to edit the section where I refer to the death of David Bennett, to include an embedded hyperlink to your piece…but only of course if you feel that what I have said is congruent…with best wishes, John

      2. Sorry John, I think I re-named you Adam. Which was itself a butchering of your surname. Accept my apologies. Sure, feel free to link the article, and thank you, just be aware if the piece stops being available, the link will no longer work. I have read your piece, thank you for writing it, you may find looking into Mills’ white ignorance helpful. All the best, Guilaine.

  2. “Similarly, as the incapacity to work became increasingly criminalised, criminality became increasingly associated with race. Initially through the racialisation of the Irish and Roma people then later, that of black people”.

    Thanks for all you do. Fascinating read, the above sentence stood out for me. As Black bodies became increasingly commodified and viewed as being less than human, Black bodies that didn’t yield the desired results/income generating outputs were seen as having no value, their humanity stood no chance. Being unfit came with grave consequences. I wonder how that with this and all that happened, we’re still the ones seen/classes as beasts.

    Thank you

    1. Thank you Tunde, I appreciate. I think I sadly came to this too, the fundamental raison d’être of the black body is commercial or at least instrumental. Still. And so yeah, it shapes everything. Thank you for reading. Take good care.

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