Who is worthy of grief? Emiliano Sala and the normality of Black death

The media coverage of Emiliano Sala's tragic death shows how little our society cares about the death of Black and Brown people. By Tanzil Chowdhury and Remi Joseph-Salisbury

February 7, 2019 · 7 min read
U.S. navy photo by Chief Information Systems Technician Wesley R. Dickey. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

On the evening of Monday 21st January, at around 20.30 GMT, an aeroplane was reported missing over the English channel. The aircraft has been the subject of much media attention, not least because it was carrying Emiliano Sala, the £15 million record signing of Cardiff City FC. The level of concern is unsurprising: the Argentine footballer had, after all, sent a voicemail to his father mid-flight, frightened that he may not make it. In the time since the event, there has understandably been an outpouring of grief among his family, Cardiff city fans, supporters from his native Santa Fe, and the wider football commentariat.  

This is unquestionably a tragic event. However, when considered within the wider geopolitical co-ordinates of international migration, the disproportionate coverage of Sala’s disappearance attests to how the intersections of race and class inform visibility in the media, and – more fundamentally – how some lives are valued more than others.

According to the Missing Migrants Project, there have already been at least 354 ‘migrant’ fatalities in 2019. Of those fatalities, 208 occurred in the Mediterranean Sea. These numbers are quite literally a drop in the ocean, with figures for the last decade reaching well into the tens of thousands. This is no accident. Rather, the Mediterranean is a key site for Fortress Europe’s systematic murder of African people. As Professor Kehinde Andrews puts it in his 2018 book Black to Black, ‘African migrants crossing the Mediterranean are left to drown, their floating bodies used as dead Nigger buoys to warn off other Niggers from attempting to come to Europe’.  So why is it that these lives have garnered far less attention than Sala’s?

To understand the disparity in media coverage, we first need to briefly consider why so many attempt such life-risking migrations. The grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power, and the continued plunder of the Global South (through war and ‘trade’) play a huge role in encouraging potentially fatal migration – all the consequences of continuing imperial machinations. It is these very same forces that render those deaths unimportant: the loss of Black lives in the Mediterranean is so systematic, that it threatens to become normalized. Black death is normal. Black Lives do not Matter. These processes are informed by, and act to reinforce, our very sense of ‘humanity’.

To ask ‘who is human’ may seem like a simple question of biology. However, as Carl Schmitt noted, humanists and humanitarians have often answered such a question by asserting the barbarity – and by extension inhumanity – of indigenous and colonized peoples. In the field of humanitarianism, Didier Fassin’s writings on the hierarchies of humanity explained how in moments of crisis, the politics of life passively establish two groups- ‘those whose status protects their sacred character and those whom the institutions may sacrifice against their will.’ Why else would protagonists in an asymmetric conflict abduct those racialized as white and ‘western’? Indeed, it is this logic that informs which loss of human life is worthy of grief. While mass loss of Black and Brown life is ‘collateral damage’, whites being gunned down in the streets of Paris are signifiers of ‘massacre’ or ‘tragedy’. Thus, how we define ‘the human’ produces these exclusions, and, which loss of life is grieved, and worthy of the attention of the world’s cameras.

We might even go further than Fassin by saying that this is not a passive process of human order and rank, but the active production of it. In questions of humanity, Black and Brown bodies are actively ignored, or subject to what Bonaventura de Souza Santos refers to as a ‘sociology of absence’. It is precisely this that we see when we contrast the case of Sala with the tens of thousands who’ve died crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

One might respond to this argument by citing the coverage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014. However, the media indulgence in that incident was rooted less in a concern for those on board – passengers primarily from the Global South – and more in the spectacle of what is considered one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time. As (conspiracy) theories abound about the whereabouts of the object, the missing passengers were largely forgotten. Had a dinghy carrying African migrants escaping war have capsized directly beneath Flight 370, one could confidently say we would have heard much less about it as a spectacle (Black death in the Mediterranean is too routine to be spectacle), and even less about the lives of those onboard.

Critics might also retort that the coverage would likely have been similar if a Black footballer was in the place of Emiliano Sala, and, to a large extent, we would be inclined to agree. However, the economic insulation of Black celebrities or Black footballers, should not be mistaken for the position of Black populations at large. And even that’s not enough to protect them from the full force of structural racism, as Raheem Sterling, Mario Balotelli, John Barnes and many others can attest. That is, given the ways in which race and class intertwine (as the Latin American idiom suggest ‘money whitens’), it remains the case that on a international scale, Black people are more likely to be living in poverty, less likely to be able to afford air travel, and  more likely to die whilst migrating.

Let’s be clear. We do not wish to say Sala’s life is not important, or to chastise those who have shown concern. Rather, it is to critically examine how reportage of travel, migration and loss of life are informed by intersections of race and class. These intersections reflect how we understand human life and worthiness. In a global society underpinned by white supremacy and a global economic system that even the IMF has called a ‘fiscal illusion’, economically poor Black and Brown bodies are seen as a dispensable. Death of the ‘subaltern’ is normalized- and why would any news outlet want to report what it sees as the everyday, the mundane.

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