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The Pathology of Asphyxial Death


On May 25, 2020, as I celebrated my 39th birthday, George Floyd, age 46, transitioned, his air supply cut off by the knee of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin pressing down on his windpipe for 9 long minutes. The independent autopsy sought out by George Floyd’s family found that he had died from asphyxiation due to sustained pressure on his neck. The literal translation of “asphyxia,” derived from the Greek, is “stopping of the pulse.” Asphyxia refers to a range of conditions in which oxygen uptake and utilization is inadequate.

The Black Lives Matter movement chant of “I Can’t Breathe” proclaims the depth and breadth of racial-colonial capitalism’s strategies. In cutting off Floyd’s air supply, white supremacy pressed pause on the collective pulse of a people, punctuating the shortness of breath that characterizes everyday Black life. For in the invisible backdrop of active chokeholds are a range of other instruments of necropolitical governance that operate through the same logic of disregarding Black life as human. The police chokehold and the industrial smokestack are two limbs of a capitalist hydra that suffocates the very possibility of life through asphyxiation. Where the nature of police violence is spectacular, overt, and punctuated, the violence of “atmospheric racism” (Fanon) operates on a different register – slow, covert, enduring. Violence in the form of toxic molecules are sedimented into the ground but also pixelated into the air and infused into the bodies that inhabit racial ecologies. For communities of color inhaling pollutants with the air they breathe, the accumulation of toxins in the body eventually manifests as chronic respiratory illness and difficulty breathing. We might even say that air pollution is an indicator par excellence of racial-colonial capitalism.

In this paper, I examine the lungs as a corporeal archive of atmospheric racism. Building on ethnographic research conducted in an aluminum company town, I elaborate how the anti-colonial theory of “sociogeny” (Fanon, Wynter) calls for a reimagined biomedicine. I intersperse ethnographic and performative segments with histories of scientific practice and epidemiological evidence to narrate the racial mythos of modern biomedicine. I argue that biomedical knowledge production operates in collusion with state and capital to deny racism’s material effects. Accounting for the materiality of racial-colonial violence shifts the burden of causation for physiological harm from individual bodies onto the uneven production of space, requiring more nuanced understandings of how unhealthy environments become embodied. For Black workers, whose lungs toiled to maintain life under the burden of toxic wastes, shortness of breath and diagnoses such as COPD reveal the underlying pathology of a racist world that perverts the essential matter sustaining life into a tool of systematic violence.

This paper is excerpted from my manuscript in progress titled Toxic Alchemy in which I investigate the relationship of Blackness to industrial capitalism through an ethnographically grounded case study of aluminum smelting in the Southern United States.


Pavithra Vasudevan is an Assistant Professor with the Department of African & African Diaspora Studies and the Center for Women’s & Gender Studies, and a faculty member of the University of Texas Feminist Geography Research Collective. Her scholarship and teaching are concerned with how racialized peoples and landscapes are devalued in capitalism and the abolitional possibilities of collective struggle. As a critical and feminist geographer, her work examines structural oppression through the embodied experiences, everyday lives and political practices of communities threatened by hazardous environments. Dr. Vasudevan earned her Ph.D. in Geography in 2018 from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She was awarded dissertation fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Society of Women Geographers, and the Center for the Study of the American South. She received the Graduate Education Advancement Board’s Impact Award for her research on the racialized burden of toxicity in the aluminum company town of Badin, North Carolina. Her approach to engaged scholarship is rooted in Critical Performance Ethnography, utilizing arts-based methods to develop collaborations with affected communities. Her book manuscript in progress, Exposing Aluminum: Death and Desire in Racial Capitalism, centers Black feminist and decolonial theory in examining the lived experiences of workers and their communities who constitute the global production network of aluminum.