Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where she is also a Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.
Co-authored by Sarah S. Richardson
Amidst the raft of deaths of African-American men at the hands of police that has captured the nation’s attention recently, we have seen repeated descriptions of the purportedly enormous size of several of the victims; indeed their size has been cited as an explanation for their death. Darren Wilson — himself 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds —testified regarding 6-foot-4, 292-pound Michael Brown, “[W]hen I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. … [T]hat’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was estimated by the officers who killed him to be “maybe 20.” On CNN’s The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer last Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-New York) asserted that Eric Garner’s death by chokehold at the hands of a policeman was due not to his race but to his obesity: “If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this.”
King insinuates here that Garner’s death was his own fault, and this sentiment was echoed repeatedly on a discussion board for police officers, one of whom commented, “Lets stop making excuses for criminal behavior because they are black. This guy would have died going up a flight of stairs. His diet killed him.” The coroner’s report on Garner’s death mentioned his weight as a contributing factor. His body size at the time of his death may have helped dissuade the grand jury from prosecuting the offending officer.
This imagery of the giant, brutish, King-Kong-like black man threatening our cities is far from new. Currently it seems to be intersecting dangerously with another popular rhetorical image: the obese person who is responsible for his own frail, unworthy body. This intersection was especially on display in Garner’s case. He is held responsible for his threatening body, which required subduing despite his being unarmed and engaging in no threatening behaviors. Simultaneously and paradoxically, he is blamed for his own death in virtue of having made his body too vulnerable to withstand “normal” handling.
Despite the increasing girth of the national and global population, as a society we fear and devalue fat bodies. The idea that the obese are responsible for their own abject bodies, in virtue of their poor, self-indulgent choices, is deeply ingrained in our national discourse. The so-called obesity “epidemic” has been framed in thoroughly moralistic terms. Media stories about obesity include shots of headless fat bodies with startling regularity; this visual trope both dehumanizes the fat body and communicates that having one is a source of shame. Fat stigma is arguably a threat to health and human well-being in its own right. When we shift responsibility for Garner’s death from police action to the shape and condition of his body, we both echo and reinforce these themes.
Yet empirical evidence does not support the idea that fatness is a product of individual moral weakness. The rapid and widespread increase in obesity rates itself signals the presence of social and environmental determinants rather than isolated individual choices. Moreover, obesity tracks race, socioeconomic class, and region in ways that strongly indicate that it is at least in large part a product of other disadvantages. The many factors that influence weight other than voluntary personal choices include the distribution and cost of high-quality grocery stores, gyms, and other exercise opportunities; urban planning and the car dependence of a community; work schedules that allow or prohibit control over meal planning and preparation; cultural and family expectations and traditions that may make significant alterations in diet prohibitively difficult; neighborhood saturation of fast-food and drive-through restaurants; larger social shifts in the composition and production of food and in portion sizes; and much more. Against this background, employing a simplistic logic of blame and individual responsibility is inappropriate.
Given that larger bodies are ever more common, whatever the reason, it is the job of social institutions that engage with these bodies to adjust to the material reality they face. Some hospitals have installed equipment that accommodates larger bodies, and healthcare workers need to be trained in caring for larger patients properly. The U.S. Army has changed its weight expectations for recruits and its training routines in response to the larger sizes of American youth. Likewise, it is the responsibility of any police force to train its officers in the proper management of larger bodies. Officers unable to restrain an obese person without killing him are not fit to be serving in a country in which more than one third of all adults are obese, particularly since these rates are going to be higher in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas that are disproportionately likely to attract police attention.
This brings us back to the topic of race and its role in recent killings. In the U.S., non-Hispanic blacks have the highest rates of obesity: 51-percent higher than that of whites. Public-health experts attribute these rates to structural discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage, including higher levels of stress and less access to health care, recreation and healthy foods.
Obesity interacts with race and gender to amplify stigma. It can magnify the already powerful stereotypes of the dangerous black man and the not-so-innocent black male youth. A recent study found that police officers tend to view black boys as young as 10 as older, larger, and less innocent than their white peers. Obesity and race combine to help code which bodies are blamed for their own demise. Imagine switching the race, gender, and size of the recent victims of deadly police force. We would be unlikely to excuse an officer’s use of lethal force against an unusually petite white woman on the grounds that he was just treating her as he would any normal person he needed to restrain. We fear that obese African-American bodies are seen as less worthy and easier to kill in the first place, and then morally responsible for their own deaths just in virtue of their material existence.
Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. Sarah S. Richardson is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.