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Transcript: In conversation with Alondra Nelson


Paul Gilroy: I'm Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London, and my guest this morning is Alondra Nelson, President of the Social Science Research Council in the US and Harold F. Linder Chair in Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Alondra Nelson is a leading scholar of science and technology and social inequality. She's written The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome and also another landmark publication, really very influential work, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Genetics and the Unsettled Past. And she's, over a long period of time now, been tracking the intersections and collisions of DNA, race and history, though she has of course broader interests in the social study of science, medicine and technology. Now should I say anything else about you Alondra, or is that sufficient?
 
Alondra Nelson: That's plenty.
 
Paul: Ok great, just checking in case there was anything you wanted me to mention.
 
Alondra: No, no, thank you.
 
Paul: I thought we should begin really by just talking about how these two different crises have become articulated together: the crisis around Covid-19, the pandemic, and the crisis around the violence of the state not only in America where the death - the murder - of George Floyd is the latest in a long unholy sequence of crimes stretching back many many many decades, many many years. I know that there are unique and particular factors that explain how that process is operated in the United States, but this country also has a long sequence of official indifference and cruelty and violence and impunity with regard to crimes against the lives and wellbeing of black and brown people in the UK. So, this isn't a unique thing and when we look at the amazing unfolding of protest across the world actually, not just in the overdeveloped countries, not just in the global north but in the south, and everywhere you look - this incredible response. I suppose I was thinking about how the two crises have been connected. I was very surprised in a way when the information about George Floyd being someone who had had the virus came out; I assumed at that point, and this is clearly wrong, that that would become a factor in the explanation of why he had died; I was so cynical I supposed that I was expecting that to be trotted out as a justification for his murder at the hands of those police officers. So how do you feel about the way these two things have intersected, come together so tightly?
 
Alondra: Yeah, that's the question for this moment and thank you for posing it because I, for two decades now, have had the benefit of trying to talk through complicated things with you and I'm glad to have this opportunity to do so. So I think I would rephrase the question a little bit by saying that these crises have been now visibly articulated - they've always been articulated - it's not that Covid-19 arised and police brutality and state oppression went away, but it in the same way that the video cameras, the phone cameras bring into emergence for moments things that we already know. I think similarly Covid-19 and the global pandemic nature of it and also the global economic collapse and the global repercussions at scale for everyone almost simultaneously, at least in a lot of large cities in the quote unquote 'west' brought it all to bear at once. But we've known that black movements for a very long time have understood health movements, health inequality, discrimination in health care, what we now call racial health disparities, to have everything to do with institutions of total social control, violence on black - meted out on black bodies - happened not only in jails and prisons but also in hospitals and clinical research. And so, I think that what this moment has brought to bear is a visibility around the articulation. But also it's worth noting the particular circumstances and I think people like me who've thought about social movements in our work, in the Black Panther party and more recently with that movement for reparations for slavery, are always thinking about these precipitating forces, this question of why now. It's worth thinking as we think about the global scale about the fact that there were already social movements against inequality happening all over the world; so we had the protest against the - try to attempt to roll back pensions in Spain; we had people protesting in Chile supposedly about the increase in a subway fare; protests in Beirut and so I think the conditions of possibility for a global protest were already there - and then it becomes what is the forcing function or the precipitating thing. And I think because Covid-19 is not just a health care crisis, but also an economic collapse, that it allowed a sowing together of real despair and real inequality across boundaries and borders, and indeed across an attempt at xenophobia and hard nationalism all over the world. And so, there was a pollyannaish gesture early on in the Covid epidemic - the 'we're all in it together, germs know no- viruses know no boundaries' sort of thing. But it did speak to a larger kind of community of fate or shared linked fate of suffering that might have different dimensions but is widely shared given growing inequality. So that's a long winded answer, but it's really only made visible things that have been long articulated and that's certainly in people's lived experience - working people's lived experience, middle class people's lived experience - and in what we know of the history of social movements, these things have gone together.
 
Paul: Absolutely, but I still think the question of why now needs to be pushed a little bit more. The people who've been organising, many of the young people, who've been organising our protests here - I'm sure you saw the extraordinarily moving - rolling - of the Edward Colston statute in Bristol yesterday. Many of these people are very very young, many of them have not been to university, many of them are - I don't know even know how to periodise their relationship with communications, technologies, of one kind or another - so I don't want to lodge the novelty only there, but I still think we have to know why now - speculate about that. And I wondered too if the fact that they are not at risk of the disease in some ways, although there may well be their communities are and so on, how that enters into their ability to act politically and demand and speak in public and occupy public space and so on.
 
Alondra: Oh, I think that's exactly right. I guess I've been struck by Covid-19 as someone who's thought about HIV Aids, it really took us 20 years or something to really understand it. So, I would say they're being told that they're not at risk - there's still so much that we don't understand about this disease and the fact that it might have long term neurological effects that one can't register at this moment. So it does matter, you combine what it is just dispositionally to be 15 or to be 20, in a sense of invincibility in that moment, and risk taking and all of that that then becomes calibrated into things like insurance - auto-insurance - and then the fact that they're told that they are low risk for the Covid infection. So, that's exactly right. There's also a technology piece here that's new - at this point iPhones are old technology and they're using things like TikTok and new kinds of technology to gather together. But I also think there's something about generation here that's worth dwelling on that I've been thinking about a lot, which is that we've left them, and I'm borrowing a little bit from my friend Nancy Cantor who's the vice chancellor of the University of Records at Newark, this idea of inheritance: we've given them a very shallow empty bag of gold here, just a weak inheritance. And so they're burdened in the United States, and to an extent in the UK, with significant debt, they don't have great prospects for jobs and for other possibilities, and so why now is also in answer to that question has been the very important organising and narrative framing around really stunted future possibilities for people of this particular age and their real awareness of that. The great mythology, one of the great mythologies of America, and I'll use that explicitly, is that children do better than their parents and there's always an upward trajectory in social mobility and all of these things and it's entirely clear that that's not the case; and so part of the why now is that as well, we'll need some research I guess to tell us for sure, but let's give a little bit of credence to the fact that people have been, I'm gonna say in quotes 'on lockdown' - I don't like to use that phrase because of its carceral implications particularly in the US - but may be bored or unemployed and have time on their hands. We know from the civil rights movement that the activists were the young people - they were high school students, sometimes college students - they can bear not that the brunt of police brutality but the punitive implications of what that might mean in some cases as well.
 
Paul: Yeah it's fascinating to me that we've seen this demographic acting around the climate crisis too here, but it's interesting that the climate crisis didn't produce the kind of eruption of anger and criticism and the demand for a different world and it's very interesting to me to think that the struggle against racial hierarchy, racial inequality and these discrepancies in so many areas of policy and government, have become a vehicle for imagining a different future.
 
Alondra: There's also this, let's not forget the simultaneity of this all, so you and I are old enough that, both as individual citizens but also as scholars, that there was all of this work about television and the power of television and radio to galvanise national communities, and to have everybody - many many bodies - in their homes with nothing to do but consume media or read media all together is the closest that we've been as a global community of political actors to listening, all listening, to the Queen's speech, or all listening to some political performance; and in this case the political performance are, in the United States, the utter collapse of the nation state as an organisation that can be trusted and relied upon to deal with the public health crisis; and then on top of that the rising authoritarian of police authorities. And so, it's everyone looking at that at once is not to be underestimated.
 
Paul: Earlier on you talked about how little we know about the disease itself and how it's really premature to be making definitive statements about its etiology and its consequences and so on; and our government here had this focus group tested slogan that they were going to 'follow the science' and I'm sure that that sounded good for a while, but it's clear here that the problem of interpretation is not one that you can dispose of so easily. I suppose thinking about the limitations of what we know and thinking about having to operate in that kind of environment where we can't know things, and we have to learn to function without those definitive answers; I was thinking about the idea that some people looking at these patterns really do seem to think that the bodily truths of racial difference are somehow in the context of this virus about to be disclosed; that all those things they've been hunting for for hundreds of years are going to suddenly become clear and visible, it might be Vitamin D, it might be Vitamin K, some epigenetic thing - the racial magic of pre-existing conditions or obesity. So I'm thinking a lot about that hunger really, I don't know if you agree, that hunger to make the body speak the truths of its racial difference at last, and using Covid as a frame through which that truth can be finally extracted and placed on public display.
 
Alondra: Yeah, I've been of course thinking about this quite a lot, part of it is just the hunger to try to figure it out, and what we know from the historical record of prior pandemics and epidemics is that the turn to racial biology always seems like the short cut - that it's the easy answer - so whether that was in the early 20th century saying that it was immigrants who brought disease with them or whether that was saying with the emergence of HIV aids that it was people of Haitian descent and homosexuals; and so the way that early forms of data around differentiation become race science effectively is a pattern that happens again and again. In this moment of course we have, distinct from other moments, these large databases of genetic data that allow people to test out fairly easily their desire to say something about why it's the black body. I do wonder, going back to the initial question with which we began - if, how do I wanna say this - I was actually quite surprised by how quickly journalists, this is in the US context, I don't know if it was the same in the UK, but journalists, op-ed writers, reporters of various type, people just speaking in the public sphere, learn to take up a language of preconditions that was about inequality and about structural issues and then racial issues, whether or not people believed it was compelling. But to me that seems like quite a sea change. I was actually quite surprised that scholarship, lots of scholarship - mine, yours, those people that we've been working with for a long time - have been able to change that sort of discourse; so I guess to the question why now or how are these things articulated that one might think about what I call in my Black Panther work the 'social health frame', how that frame was mobilised to explain quote unquote 'racial health disparities' for Covid in the US - and among, as you call it there, BAME populations, which I find fascinating - how that intervened early on. So one of the things I've been interested in and in the quick turn to genetic data and the study that's being done, one of the bigger studies that's an international study, is this idea of the outlier; so I've been interested in that part of what some of the studies are trying to look at is actually there, and some that are saying is it is APOE a factor, Vitamin D, metabolisation a factor? But there are these outlier studies that are - the question is who are the people who are otherwise healthy that succumb to Covid-19? So I'm quite interested in thinking about that as a kind of racialisation process and what is the racialisation of the outlier and is the the outlier going to be, in our scientific imaginary, the strong upper middle-class jogging-daily European-American guy in London or New York City, and how in the world do we explain that this could happen to them? And thinking about the potential of, in those particular studies, as white racialisation as a surprise, surprise of succumbing to disease. So as much as I am interested in the continuation of the trail that we've been on for certainly the last 15 years with everything supposed to have a genetic predisposition or some genetic valence, I think we should also be mindful of the new forms, the racialisation, that will likely happen in this moment as well.
 
Paul: Yes, absolutely, and it connects up really with the fact that the particular cabal that run our country at the moment are very wired into the fantasy of forking over all out data, organising it all into one system and, at the moment, selling it off to Palantir for a pound of whatever it is. Maybe I'm naive, I don't think they know what they're gonna do with it even, I think that doesn't bother them - Palantir's an interesting intervention because - and an interesting company - because I don't think it's ever returned a profit yet, which is not to say it won't do that in the future. So this whole question of data, the role of data, the politics of data, you it's interesting when this so called 'BAME Report' that was being published last week; what they did, when they began to be concerned that world events - code for responses to the murder of George Floyd - we're going to intervene in the politics of Covid at home and its relationship with minority ethnic and black communities, they severed the parts of the report which dealt with structural inequality, which dealt with the history of health disparity over long periods of times - the more qualitative part, the sections which included responses from over 1000 organisations - and they published the data. They published the data on its own without any attempt to explain how it might be interpreted, without any attempt to show what was going to be the outcome of that encounter with the data; I thought that was interestingly symptomatic, not least of course because when you look at that data, when you look at it you see that the biggest association as a risk factor is really age, and that the obesity connection seems at least on the basis of this data to be age-related. So it's not a simple picture at all, but age is absolutely, in fact much more than the public discourse has been able to identify, the biggest question of risk compared with people in their 20s and 30s - those in their 40s about three to four times more likely to die; those in their 50s about nine times more likely to die; and those 60 to 64, my age category, about 19 times more likely to die. So I think that maybe one of the things you're picking up on is also going to be related to age, and I've been really shocked actually, I've been really shocked at how the disposablility of the aged, of the post-working populations, has been just assumed as another instance of life unworthy of being lived, if I can use that phrase and apply here. So, there's another whole layer to this and it's interesting that when I think of the extinction rebellion protests that we had last year, the demographic slices of those activists were all the under 20s and the over 60s. So here again we see this particular kind of - I won't call it a polarisation - there's a possibility of a different conception of where political action takes place that's signalled in that demographic pairing. Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I do think there's something there that's of interest.
 
Alondra: That doesn't sound optimistic to me at all. I think that this point about disposablility, that will be one of the leitmotifs of this moment sadly. And it's been interesting because so much of the conversation around generation has been about wealthy baby boomers and the post-60 demographic as being engines for capital in some ways - not in the workforce, disposable income - those were the ones who were the successful generation even as ones that follow them maybe we're not so successful. Gerontology is an important field of scientific research in part because there were people who wanted to fund it and there were people of value to whom the science would yield benefit. And so I've actually been a little bit more surprised by the almost universal disposablility of elderly people, of the aged. But I think that what we'll see is of course that there're different cultural manifestations or cultural understandings - in my community elders are sacred people in our community, they're in some regard the least disposable because they are the most wise and have the most to offer in so many ways. So I think that there will be a reckoning, not just around the generational killing off frankly, but also that there is real variance in how different communities think about their elders.
 
Paul: Yeah absolutely and I think here too a lot of the younger black activists very aware that in making the decisions they made to go and organise in public and protest in public in the way they have, they're very very mindful of not wanting to carry the risk of infection back into their own communities and put their elders at risk. So, I do really recognise what you're saying there. I know you've written a lot in the past also about Afrofuturism and that, and I wonder if there's a way in which this will help stimulate the possibility of reimagining a future in a different configuration?
 
Alondra: I think so, absolutely. The seed of Afrofuturism for me that often gets forgotten about - there's two seeds, one is the kind of technology pieces that I think has for me always been really important; but there's the dystopia piece. The power of Afrofuturism has been about being from communities, in communities, that daily generationally often chronically faced execution, being annihilated. And so out of that how does one create ever imagine anything? To me that is the miracle of it - to be from a tradition of people who have not only been chattel, but who have been the always disposable demographic. For me it's a paradigm for imagining, but it also is something quite - it's what we do. It's what we do, the world is inequality, racism, is segmented into this edifice, and every day people get up in small acts of hope -  in small acts of futurism - and so we're at a moment now where those small acts can be big acts and can be big gestures and transformative gestures. But the backdrop of that is black loss, black death, black suffering; and Afrofuturism has always been not quite the dialectic, but the friction against that. So yes and of course I guess I would say, not that this is a particularly distinctive window but that the window is always there given that the conditions of extinction and of death are always there.
 
Paul: That's right, I'm sure. I suppose I think the only thing I'd add to that is that this outcome - this incredible planetary moment - has been generated out of absolutely nothing political - I mean political in the sense of government and so on. It's a cultural phenomenon and I think people don't even want to imagine that that was still possible, so for me the shock and the magic and the beauty of this moment is one that really relates to the power of culture. That's something that the people on the right in the last couple of decades have understood much better than others, and maybe this is a moment where we can see that there are things to learn from rethinking the question of culture in this situation.
 
Alondra: Yeah, no I take that, I credit that point. I would say that maybe what made that possible though was not that there was no kind of politics, but that politics completely collapsed. Right, so it's not - in the context of the United States when there is no state authority or state moral or otherwise to which one can appeal - then the cultural turn must occur.
 
Paul: That's here as well unfortunately, so thank you Stormzy and everyone else who's been working so hard to make these struggles meaningful to younger people in ways that those of us whose work is really about publishing things haven't really felt to do. Alondra thank you so much, thank you so much for this very rich generative conversation. Perhaps in another month or so we can check in and update and see how things are looking from there. I'm really really grateful to you for making the time and for being so generous and I look forward to continuing the dialogue soon
 
Alondra: As do I, let's do it again.