- Disability in an Age of Fascism
This is no longer a time of waiting. It is a time for the real work's urgencies. It is a time enhanced by an iron reclamation of what I call a burst of light—that inescapable knowledge, in the bone, of my own physical limitation.—Audre Lorde, "A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer"
I would argue that disability justice is simply another term for love.—Mia Mingus, Disability Intersectionality Summit, opening keynote, 2018
Four years after the publication of The Cancer Journals (1980), self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet" Audre Lorde received a diagnosis of liver cancer, "metastasized from the breast cancer for which [she] had had a mastectomy six years before."1 The 1988 essay "A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer" details the unfolding of her life thereafter, a record of navigating the medical-industrial complex and the body's rebellion at the height of the Reagan administration. Accordingly, the specter of the increasingly threadbare welfare state looms over Lorde's reflections: immediately after her February 1 diagnosis, she observes that the "starving old women who used to sit in broken-down [End Page 265] rooming houses waiting for a welfare check now lie under park benches and eat out of garbage bins."2 By drawing focus to the ravages of anti-welfare policy, even in the midst of diagnosis, Lorde connects her seemingly intimate experience of cancer to the material conditions—such as the withdrawal of already meager state support—that debilitate black and brown lives en masse.
In 2019, thirty years after the publication of Lorde's essay, the systemic disablement of racialized and low-income populations continues unabated. The numbers of the uninsured continue to inflate under the current administration, and for the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries, the proliferation of disability, illness, and addiction enables the further harvesting of profit. In the afterlife of Reagan, whose platform of state divestment and corporate deregulation set in motion our present health/care crisis, disability, debility, and illness have emerged as primary arenas for racialized punishment. For instance, undocumented immigrants in the United States "already have the lowest rates of healthcare utilization and the highest uninsurance rate of any group in the country. … Immigrants' ability to access healthcare has deteriorated even further due to the increased threat of deportation under the Trump regime."3 A recent forum in the Boston Review, titled "How Race Made the Opioid Crisis," discusses the relationship between racial capitalism and "racially bifurcated understandings of addiction," demonstrating how the "demonization of urban, nonwhite drug users" during the so-called War on Drugs enabled the "opening of 'white' pharmaceutical markets" that "paved the way for our current public health crisis."4 Or as Britt Rusert succinctly observes, "The pattern of profiting from racialized sickness endures, and it shows no sign of stopping."5
Given the centrality of disability, illness, and the medical-industrial complex to contemporary regimes of racial capitalism, the insights offered by disability theory feel more urgent than ever. As Lorde puts it in the epigraph above, "This is no longer a time for waiting." But historically, what has disability studies taught us about US Empire, settler colonialism, globalization, biopolitics, and political economy? What has disability studies said about welfare, immigration, labor exploitation, and police brutality? What, as the disability scholar Lezlie Frye has so provocatively asked, is the relationship between the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities, and the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the Clinton-era...