The Trump Administration’s governance of COVID-19 data has become a front and center issue in the battle against racism in health and healthcare. Partly due to the convergence of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and protest movements with the pandemic, anti-racist COVID data science and discourse has proliferated much like the virus it frames. The standard assumption is that racialized COVID-19 health disparities would have been greater and more harmful without this data. This paper challenges this assumption by asking if the production and circulation of COVID-19 racial data strengthened anti-Black racism in the United States? The production of racialized epidemiological data is a necessary feature of an antiracism because we must generate a metric that is legible to the racial state—that mechanism is numbers. Numbers can force a reckoning with racial inequity, but sometimes that reckoning can be a liberal fantasy. None of this data has led to the meaningful reduction or elimination of a single racial health disparity, ever. The painstaking calculation of the pandemic’s effects on Black people is a necessary but insufficient condition for saving Black people’s lives. By itself, this data will not be enough to stem the tide of anti-Black racism as it washes over Black bodies. The data will not save us.
The forms of necropower governing the racialization of the COVID-19 pandemic is not accidental nor fixable, but designed through and through, transmogrifying the pandemic into a new necropolitical war that requires killing the racialized Other to save the White (nation) self. Counting the dead in such a scenario is not enough. This paper interprets the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of Afropessimism which provides a framework for reconciling the contradictions between racial health disparities research and racial necropolitics in the US. And yet, Afropessimism also offers an exit ramp for critical race theorists who are tired of same-old reform-retrenchment pattern that has characterized US race relations since Reconstruction. That exit ramp leads away from liberal reform science and towards abolitionist forms of organizing against oppressive social systems and towards the expansion of communities’ capacities for caring for people. Anti-racist health scholars must be willing to question the foundational assumptions that uphold their field of investigation and to confront the modalities of racial capitalism and racist government that establish the institutional contexts that require Black death and the illusions of numeracy.