“Peace in One Place Would Mean Peace in Another: On Jenna Loyd’s Health Rights Are Civil Rights

Jenna Loyd’s Health Rights Are Civil Rights locates the ways in which health, militarization, gender, and race intersect in Los Angeles. The book draws attention to the ways in which the civil rights and other activist movements that began in the 1960s came to understand and articulate how health is a multi-scalar concern—located not only through and within intimate scale of the body, but also connected to the neighborhood, city, region, state, nation, and globe. More specifically, Loyd’s argument demonstrates, at least for me, the monumental workings of imperialism and white supremacy—for in this book, she carefully outlines how health is tied to a set of social and spatial relations that are bound up in a racial economy of war making. The context allows her to show how war, at home and abroad, nuclear armament, poverty, racism, policing, housing, and labour are interlocking global processes that unfold in Los Angeles in meaningful ways. In making the links between a range of local racial violences and global militarization, Loyd also opens up how the racial politics of health incite anti-colonial solidarity and collective responses to human life.

There are a few themes in the book that I want to highlight. The first is Loyd’s contextualization of the 1960s. This moment, as we know, returns us to the civil rights and other social movements that pushed up against powerful and hegemonic conceptualizations of humanness. At this moment redefinitions of race, gender, and sexuality were being enunciated and practiced.  In Health Rights are Civil Rights Loyd allows us to glimpse how identity formation in 1960s opened up collaborative activist work. More specifically, because she thinks across scales that are nested in a wider imperialist project and a vast range of health concerns, Loyd reads the 1960s as a contested moment that necessitated gendered cross-ethnic activist work. I draw attention to Loyd’s conceptualization of the 1960s precisely because looking back on this moment, in the present, is often hindered by what I call our post-Combahee River Collective identity politics. This is to say that there is sometimes a tendency to look back on the 1960s with eyes that read civil rights movements as discreet moments—emerging from discreet identities and identifications—that emerged simultaneously. So, in the present, the black struggle, the gay and lesbian struggle, the feminist struggle are, analytically (and anachronistically) hived off according to identity markers that we are, sadly, beholden to in the present. Loyd’s book refuses this tendency by showing how health and health matters, rather than identity claims, produce shared conceptions of freedom. This is not to suggest that the 1960s was a moment of uncontested collectivity—Loyd makes clear that peace and social justice activism were difficult, debated, and in some cases deadly. What I think is important, though, is the author’s ability to analytically reorient questions of race, liberation and humanity away from our present facile identity politics and toward a more interesting, and complex, conceptualization of human life.

With this in mind, also notable in this book is Loyd’s conceptualization of human life and health. So expansive is the concept of health in the book that one must think hard about, and dwell on, how human life, and therefore premature death, is tied to a multifaceted and layered and monumental racial economy. For example, Loyd refers to health in relation to state violence, in relation to hospital infrastructures, in relation to abortion debates, poverty, clinics, medicine, the military, pollution and environmental racism, white supremacy, warfare, and more. The sheer breadth of health matters in the book made me pause, often, to think about my own research on the scientific underpinnings of racial violence—precisely because the preeminent unhealthy body is always the black body. Loyd’s insights speak, in a small way, to my own concerns about the ways in which white supremacy naturalizes the suffering black body and its surroundings—and also how we attend to this in our scholarly works. The harm is exhausting in this book. Yet because the conceptualization of health and health matters is so expansive, and exhausting, one cannot simply dwell on the suffering body. Instead, this book insists that heath violence is a massive infrastructural project wherein human life is differentially expressed through modes of privilege. This means, therefore, that our work ahead might not rest on rescuing the suffering but rather dismantling the exhausting and monumental racial economy that enables suffering.

The work of dismantling speaks to my final point: well-being. In this text well-being emerges alongside activism. Well-being is not equated with the privileges that come with wealth and geographic comfort. So, one does not engender well-being by seeking equity in, or moving up within, existing systems of power. Instead, the regional investment in war making is underpinned by a racialized economy of health that cannot be disentangled from racialized resistance to oppression—resistance which necessarily questions existing infrastructures of health yet finds, within these existing structures, new or refashioned definitions of well-being. In this resistance an assertion of human life flourishes. Health Rights Are Civil Rights underscores that activism and practical resistances to inequity are radical sites that define well-being according to building solidarities. The archival work in this book is, I think, extremely powerful not simply because it gives a voice to the marginalized but also because it situates activism as location of humanity; as Loyd moves from the 1960s into the 1970s we see how the racial economy of health shifted and access to care became increasingly limited. Yet steady throughout the text are actions that insist on a definition of well-being that encompasses broad and relational oppositions to racial and anti-black violence. What this book does, that is extremely subtle but meaningful, is insist that the multi-scalar production of racial unhealthiness produces the conditions through which well-being is recoded as lively collaborative action. This also means that our work ahead must not only involve honouring that human life, kinship, and survival in the face of human condemnation, but also paying close attention to how this kind of work has always been engendered and enabled by the most marginalized.