Rethinking Health and Power during Times of Crisis

Oct 29, 2020

Part 2 of Virtual Panel Series Racism in History and Context | 3pm - 4:30pm ET | Panelists: Manuela Boatcă (University of Freiburg), Teresa Koloma Beck (Bundeswehr University Munich), Monica Muñoz Martinez (UT Austin), and Kathryn Olivarius (Stanford) | Moderators: Elisabeth Engel (GHI Washington) and Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley)

This is part 2 of the panel series “Racism in History and Context” presented by the German Historical Association, the German Historical Institute Washington and its Pacific Regional Office, and the Institute of European Studies at University of California, Berkeley

> Watch a recording of the event

The risk of physical harm posed by both the coronavirus pandemic and US police officers’ ongoing willingness to use violence against African Americans has been quickly conceived as a major feature of the current crisis. Governments and citizens in the U.S., Europe, and beyond squarely agree that ethnic and racial minorities are disproportionately imperiled due to longstanding and systemic disadvantages. We observe a long tradition of this phenomenon. Crises and, foremost, pandemics reveal predetermined breaking points of societies, including structural racism. Going back to the 14th century with the outbreak of the bubonic plague, pandemics have exposed social bias. Due to such structures, people have shaped starkly different and clashing responses to pandemics. Currently, apparent racial disparities in access to physical safety prompt fierce protest movements among citizens, on the one hand, and strong measures to control them on the part of governments and local authorities, on the other. Thus, health and power are at stake on either side of the conflict.

The panel aims to inquire into the role of racism in the history of epidemics and the history of state violence. This brings to light very specific problems in the various countries. Even though the overall phenomenon has characteristic features in every society, it is the result of specific historical processes and must therefore be understood and discussed in the respective historical contexts. Thus, the German Historical Association (Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands e.V., VHD), the German Historical Institute Washington with its Pacific Regional Office, and the Institute of European Studies at University of California, Berkeley, have invited Manuela Boatcă (University of Freiburg), Teresa Koloma Beck (Bundeswehr University Munich), Monica Muñoz Martinez (UT Austin), and Kathryn Olivarius (Stanford) to trace the ways in which racism has figured as an aspect of their respective subjects of research.

The event is part two of the panel-discussion series “Racism in History and Context,” which brings together scholars from various fields to explore the histories of racism that have been constructed in current debates about the coronavirus pandemic and violent police confrontations. What and who defines the deeper and historically longer-term contexts of the present phenomenon? How do the various discourses and memories of racist violence differ in quite diverse national contexts and narratives, and what interdependencies can we discern? How do social and cultural tensions take form under the pressure of condemning racism in moments and historical narratives of crises? The first panel "Rethinking Memory and Knowledge during Times of Crisis" is available on our Vimeo channel

Panel Series Report


“Racism in History and Context”
A Virtual Panel Series on the Historical Relationship between Crisis and Racism

The clearest connection between historical trajectories of racism and present events is that racism makes structural vulnerability appear as fate. There is always a naturalization of race and of the racial hierarchies. That naturalization becomes more apparent in times of crisis: “You’re shaping your own fate, and this is fate. Deserved.” The racialized are always associated with infection. But the discourse is larger: association with infection, lack of civilization, close-ness to nature. It is contradictory. 
– Manuela Boatcă


The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for existing areas of societal conflict. Open or hidden inequalities, which are often the result of long-term historical processes, are becoming much more visible under the conditions of the pandemic – as if in a crucible. The topic of racism forms one of the central as-pects of discussions since the pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020 in the US and Europe. The virtual panel series “Racism in History and Context,” held in the English language in the fall of 2020 with a total of more than 500 participants via Zoom, took up these debates as a central challenge for our societies. The series elaborated histor-ical and sociological perspectives on the various contexts and pasts of the present crisis.

The pandemic crisis has been accompanied by a broad debate about racist inequalities and discrimination in the societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Spurred by the death of US citizen George Floyd at the hands of police offic-ers in early June, people around the world have taken to the streets to protest racism and police brutality. In the US, movements like Black Lives Matter have been strengthened. In addition, the US African American population continues to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In Europe, too, and beyond, anti-racist protests have prompted a critical engagement with the remnants of colonial and slavery traditions. In Germany, the issue of addressing the country’s colonial past from a historical-political perspective has gained momentum, crystallizing, for example, in a sometimes fiercely polarized debate about renaming streets and public squares and buildings or about the no less disputed question of just how widely and deeply racist attitudes are anchored in the majority society or concretely within police departments. In many contexts, the crisis has uncovered modern racism, which has specific causes and can be traced to various historical contexts in each society where it finds its own expression.

The Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschland (VHD), the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) and its regional office in Berkeley, as well as the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley took this transatlantic diagnosis of the times as an occasion to illuminate present societal forms of racism from a historical perspective. The participating institutions invited sociologists and historians from North America and Europe to join the panel.

Memory and Knowledge

The first panel “Rethinking Memory and Knowledge during Times of Crisis” dealt with the questions of how the memory of and knowledge about racism, racist inequality, and racist violence have changed since the end of World War II, and which actors have played a role in knowledge production in each case. Ana Lucia Araujo (How-ard University Washington DC), Manuela Bauche (FU Berlin), Norbert Frei (Universität Jena), and Michael Rothberg (UC Los Angeles) were the panelists. The moderators were Francisco Bethencourt (King’s College London) and Akasemi Newsome (UC Berkeley).

Critical engagement with racist pasts has always been largely determined by political and cultural developments, and it varies from country to country. A comparative view, however, makes transnational patterns and intersec-tional entanglements apparent, with the memory of the Holocaust and decolonization, especially, playing a central role – the latter understood as a political process that even today is an ongoing cultural (knowledge) process. In the Federal Republic, Norbert Frei and Manuela Bauche averred, the memory of the Holocaust only became a central anchoring point of national self-understanding in the 1980s after decades of repression. And only in the last several years has there been an increasing awareness of critical engagement with racist violence in the colo-nial era of the German Empire or in the Federal Republic and in the GDR as more than a mere remnant of the Nazi era. In France, by contrast, as Michael Rothberg explained, political decolonization, and particularly the Algerian War of Independence, called for critical engagement with the Holocaust and the occupation period as early as the 1960s. Ana Lucia Araujo pointed out that the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery from the 16th to the 19th centuries did not follow a linear development of ever-expanding historical consciousness in the societies that participated in these historical processes. Rather, it was highly dependent on regional contexts: In the US, the civil rights movement played a decisive role in the 1960s; in Latin America, the military dictatorships and, in South Africa, the Apartheid regime long suppressed any 
critical, memory-culture engagement with these topics. The panelists regarded the late 1980s, and above all the 1990s, shaped as they were by the end of the Cold War, as a turning point because at that juncture, global spaces of memory for the Holocaust and slavery were able to become established.

An overarching pattern in the more recent history of knowledge about racism in the transatlantic world seems to be the perpetual challenge of national narratives of memory “from below.” According to Norbert Frei, the need to break through the broad collective silence about the Nazi past in the Adenauer era presented an important point of crystallization for the protests of 1968. In the 1980s, the history workshops decisively shaped the memory of the Holocaust above all at the local level and often from a life-world perspective. The memory of slavery, too, Ana Lucia Araujo noted, was (and continues in many cases to be) made more visible by means of identity-forming memory narratives of family history. Similarly, Manuela Bauche pointed out, today numerous postcolonial groups and movements shine a spotlight on the long-forgotten racist violence of the colonial era, thus contributing meaningfully to the recalibration and differentiation of national memory narratives. The point of departure for the second panel of the series was the fact that racism constitutes a reality of the present, as well as of recent history, and has in no way been overcome; it manifests itself not only in intentional acts of violence but also as pragmatic, historical, institutionalized everyday knowledge. As such a phenomenon, it has only come to be more widely discussed in the last few years, at least in Germany.

Health and Violence

Entitled “Rethinking Health and Power during Times of Crisis,” this second panel explored the historical and pre-sent intersections of racism, health, and state power. The panelists were Manuela Boatcă (Universität Freiburg), Teresa Koloma Beck (Bundeswehr Universität München), Monica Muñoz Martinez (UT Austin), and Kathryn Oli-varius (Stanford). The panel was moderated by Elisabeth Engel (GHI Washington) and Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley).

From the perspective of her research on experiences of violence in wartime societies, Teresa Koloma Beck exam-ined the reorganization of everyday life during times of pandemic, revealing that considerations of security and risk take on a new centrality around which people increasingly orient fundamental rules of behavior. For exam-ple, by constructing dangerous situations and characterizing certain persons or groups as risky, one can call up historically developed racialized attributions in the promise of providing orientation in a muddled conflict situation. For instance, the information that COVID-19 first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan was translated in practi-cal everyday terms into the rule, built upon existing racist stereotypes, to be “cautious around people who look Asian” – racial profiling as a meaning-generating, socially enacted othering in everyday life. Another example that Manuela Boatcă highlighted reveals the effectiveness of racist structures and the reservoir of well-established lines of argument available in society for characterizing Eastern European seasonal workers as uncivilized, less domesticated groups that are robust in body and accustomed to illness. This argument allows their labor to con-tinue to be exploited as usual in the German food industry under pandemic conditions without further concern. 

Such forms of practical everyday racialization of groups of people are not new phenomena in the present, nor are they restricted to times of crisis, but rather, they have been documented in the historiography in their function of creating order. Monica Muñoz Martinez demonstrated how actors in Texas and other US states in the early 20th century tried to legitimize racist violence and mob law, among other things, by characterizing immigrants from Mexico as a risk to the “nation’s health.” And, as Kathryn Olivarius explained, in the context of yellow fever epi-demics in the American South in the early 19th century, the concept of “immunity capital” – built upon the racist hierarchy of slavery – made both the rights and privileges of whites, but also the market value of slaves for their owners, dependent on their “acclimatization” status. Since it was not discovered that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever, the usual preventive measures largely failed to have any effect. Consequently, immunity by means of natural infection remained the only way one could “acclimatize,” so that having had an infection came to be a sort of entry ticket into the world of the Cotton Kingdom. In this way, the white plantation owners’ attempts to generate meaning through these powerful interpretations of the yellow fever epidemics strengthened existing racial inequalities between poor and rich, thus cementing the social and economic order as natural and thus logical and just.

Present considerations to secure economic vitality by achieving “herd immunity” or by issuing “immunity pass-ports” show that the “immunity capital” chapter of history has not yet come to a close. In these approaches, the state once again assumes the role of a central distributor of privileges, largely leaving already marginalized groups out. These groups, moreover, often have no opportunity to avoid the virus. However, the beginning of a transformation of structural inequalities has always taken place within the context of crisis situations, and this insight, too, all the panelists believe, is essential to understanding the entangled dynamics of the pandemic, rac-ism, and state violence in historical perpective.

Report by Frank Kell

About the Organizers


The German Historical Association (VHD) is the representative organ of German historical scholarship in the public. The core task of the VHD is to organize the Biennial Convention of German Historians (“Historikertag”) – one of the largest conferences in the humanities in Europe, most recently with more than 4,000 participants. As a lobby group, the VHD is committed to the interests of its members in a variety of ways and, as a professional association, is in constant dialogue with universities, university-related institutions, and society. The VHD currently has about 3,400 members.

The German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) is a center for advanced historical research. Working with junior and senior scholars around the world, the GHI facilitates dialogue and scholarly collaboration across national and disciplinary boundaries. The GHI was established in 1987 as an independent non-profit foundation. Since 2002 it has been part of the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland (Max Weber Foundation – International Humanities Institutes Abroad), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which coordinates an international network of humanities institutes. In 2017, the GHI opened its Pacific Regional Office on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, to foster cooperation with a myriad of world-class scholars and renowned research institutions on the West Coast, and to extend its public outreach effort there.

The Institute of European Studies (IES) at the University of California, Berkeley, is the leading center for research and education on Europe in the Western United States, and among the top three such organizations in the U.S. Through interdisciplinary public events, research programs, grant opportunities, and community outreach, IES seeks to enrich America's understanding of Europe – its people, developments and challenges – at Berkeley and throughout the state of California.