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Position Pieces

Vol 8 No 1: April issue

Density and Danger: Social Distancing as Racialised Population Management

December 15, 2020
April 23, 2021


A ubiquitous facet of collective social life in the age of COVID-19, social distancing(that is, the set of practices that aims to reduce the number of people in public spaces and maximise the distance between them) works to suppress viral spread by de-densifying public spaces; it redistributes people who are vectors for the virusby pushing them into their own domestic spaces. While the scale of these manoeuvres is in some ways unprecedented, the toll that the virus and its primary means of mitigation—social distancing—extracts along racial lines is at once unequal and deeply familiar. In this Position Piece, I examine social distancing as de-densification within a larger history of family planning and racialised population management in the context of ongoing fieldwork on the material and affective implications of contraceptive use in the American Midwest. In probing the grammar of social distancing—its distinctions between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ workers, services, and spaces and the ways in which such distinctions unequally distribute the labour of de-densification and its impacts on family planning—I elucidate how COVID-19 managements do not simply reveal existing racial disparities, but make them anew at a time when the fabrics of social reproduction are increasingly under strain. The dynamics of social distancing can thus be understood as continuous with ongoing attempts at racialised population management. Such an understanding opens a space for political action foreclosed by a narrow view of social distancing as crisis response.