Racial Valuation of Diseases

Scholars have paid inadequate attention to how racial valuation influences what actors prioritize or deem worthwhile. Today, racial valuation of diseases informs the stark global health inequities seen worldwide. As a concept, racial valuation refers to how racialized societies assign differing values to an individual or group based on their racial designation and the position within the social hierarchy that their racial categorization implies. It helps to explain how laws, institutions, and society—informed by ideas about race—distribute material conditions in health, which perpetuate and reinforce existing hierarchies. This Article develops a theoretical framework for racial valuation and examines how the historical and scientific construction of race influenced the emergence of racial valuation norms. The framework of racial valuation postulates that explicit and implicit pseudoscientific distinctions that devalue the worth of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have persisted, diffused, and morphed over time. Racial valuation is woefully undertheorized, and its applicability has been underexplored in the literature. This Article fills this gap by developing a theoretical framework for racial valuation and applying it to the racialization of the novel coronavirus. This framework captures how racial valuation reflects racialized beliefs from slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism, which persist today and have influenced the racial valuation of diseases. Significant legal and institutional reform is necessary to shift how people, society, and laws respond to diseases depending upon the racial populations most impacted.

About the Author

Matiangai Sirleaf, Nathan Patz Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law. The author is grateful to Amber Chaudhry and Taylor Mosley for their research assistance. Additionally, the author would like to thank Chaz Arnett, Dayna Bowen Matthew, Rachel Brewster, James Gathii, Ryan Goodman, Ernesto Hernández-López, Jayne Huckerby, Karen Knop, Renee Landers, Melissa Stewart, Carlos Vasquez, Katie Young, and the participants of the faculty workshops at Vanderbilt Law School, University of Connecticut School of Law, and the University of Maryland School of Law. The author would also like to thank the Women in International Law workshop at Duke Law School, the international law colloquium at Georgetown University Law Center and the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, the Hauser Colloquium on Humanitarian and Human Rights Law at New York University School of Law, the faculty colloquium at the University of Colorado 1821 Law School, and the Critical Perspectives on Race and Human Rights: Transnational Re-Imaginings Symposium at the UCLA School of Law for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this project.