Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Whose Reproductive Futures? Race-Biopolitics and Resistance in the Black Infant Mortality Reduction Campaigns in Milwaukee

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Whose Reproductive Futures? Race-Biopolitics and Resistance in the Black Infant Mortality Reduction Campaigns in Milwaukee

Article excerpt


This paper responds to Tyner's (2013: 702) call for geographers to "to reflect more directly on the spatiality and survivability of 'vulnerable' populations" and to conduct such investigations under the rubric of biopolitics, understood as or more bluntly, "... within any given place, who lives, who dies, and who decides?" (Tyner, 2013). This paper examines the politics around an infant mortality reduction campaign in Milwaukee begun in 2010. The infant mortality rate for Milwaukee's Black community has been about three times the rate for whites, and also higher than rates for other racialized groups, for over a decade. This "racial gap," identified through the quantification and racial classification of infants who died before reaching age one, is thus a sign of injustice, and the justification for biopolitical interventions.

   the political negotiation of life; how life, its existence and
   vitality, is linked to the regulation and contestation of who has
   priority to live and flourish, and who might be left to wither and

This paper asks how Milwaukee's public health interventions on infant mortality came to focus on sleep deaths, when population data show that preterm birth and congenital abnormalities are the leading causes of all infant deaths in the city, and the greatest contributor to the racial gap. The City of Milwaukee Health Department and nonprofit civil society partners drew on a set of contradictory biopolitical logics and practices: On one hand, they located the problem of the racial gap in particular segregated neighborhoods-in-crisis, and on the other hand, they used an ostensibly "race-blind" strategy of promoting safe sleep environments. The "safe sleep" campaign emerged from the convergence of the "safe sleep environment" as a legible space, public health models of "health beliefs," and marketing firms' commitment to uncomfortable if not shocking images. Furthermore, the "race-blind" safe sleep campaign, using images of babies in danger to generate consensus and forestall criticism as racially partial, not only provoked criticism but also shifted blame for the crisis onto "failing" parents, especially Black parents.

The following section delineates a framework for understanding the politics of Milwaukee's infant mortality reduction campaign. Biopolitics offers an overall lens for examining the public health intervention, while theory on futures and critical race scholarship aid in analyzing the campaign's mixed political results. Subsequent sections introduce background in relation Milwaukee's capacities for provision of health care, welfare, and liveable economies. Next I show how the "racial gap," a term encapsulating the racial disparity in infant mortality between Blacks and other population categories, was visualized and mapped onto racialized spaces. The Safe Sleep Campaign in Milwaukee offered the "safe sleep environment" to pre-empt the crisis of infant deaths. This sense of crisis, produced by City and nonprofit publicity, justified interventions, and aimed to elicit a multi-racial consensus through the invocation of community and reproductive futurism. Throughout I identify instances of resistance--anti-racist or racist; white, Black, parental, local, national--and how the City negotiated these biopolitical contestations.

Biopolitics, reproductive futurism, and race

My research contributes to the Foucauldian population geographies proposed by Legg (2005) and developed by many geographers including Legg (2007, 2009), Philo (2000, 2001, 2005), Brown and Knopp (2006, 2010), Evans (2010), and Mansfield (2012). This scholarship builds on both Foucault's early work examining how regimes of classification, the gaze, and shifting spatializations of illness marked the development of modern medical science, and later work on liberal government of populations (Foucault, 2003, 2007, 2008; Philo, 2000). For their focus on the local state, I draw heavily on Brown and Knopp (2010) and Legg (2005, 2007). …

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