Pugliese writes of human beings treated as animal carcasses. This is so clearly what Ms Dhu was to her jailors: meat gone bad. Inquests into deaths of this kind, either Canadian or Australian, refuse to interrogate these moments of utter dehumanization. Racism, they typically conclude, has nothing to do with it. Yet racism is first and foremost a pervasive, institutionalized eviction of Indigenous people from the category of the human. When people are regarded as less than human, they are expendable. Marked for death, an invisible checkmark on the skin earmarks disposability. Such deaths never count as murder. We simply accept untimely Indigenous death as natural, a predictable end for a damaged people whose bodies are in a permanent state of decay. ‘People die,’ one prison guard told a Coroner, implying that there was not much he could do when a prisoner died in the cells. It’s better that they die in the cells rather than on the streets, a police officer opined, unconcerned about the sick prisoner he didn’t bother checking on and who had died on his watch. The failure of professionals to help a sick person, the frequency with which guns or Tasers are used, the numbers of suicides that take place in prisons, (indicating how many prisoners are driven to suicide, and how easy it is for prisoners to kill themselves) and the willingness to risk Indigenous life so easily reveal an abiding disregard for Indigenous life. The same dehumanization is evident in the consistent reluctance in inquests and inquiries among other legal processes, to interrogate those moments when a person’s life is deemed to be worthless. Inquests often paper over the brutality, endlessly recommending that state actors develop a little more cultural sensitivity and remember to check cameras in police stations and hanging points in cells. Oft-repeated, the recommendations, which I call the game of improvement, indirectly confirm that settler society finds it difficult to provide the barest minimum of care and respect to populations that it over-polices and incarcerates at rates that are among the highest in the Western world. With respect to Indigenous peoples, there is a “failure to respond,” concludes the Correctional Investigator for Canada, Howard Sapers. When we want to understand where racism is in deaths in custody such as Ms Dhu’s, we should begin with this “failure to respond,” asking where it comes from, what it sustains, and how it might change. Could there be a settler colonial state without it?
Sherene Razack is Distinguished Professor and Penny Kanner Endowed Chair in Women's Studies at UCLA. She is author of 'Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody'.