Melissa Harris-Perry: Earlier this month, 17 people, including 8 children were killed in the Bronx when a sudden fire spread through an apartment building. New York City officials have pointed to a space heater and faulty self-closing doors as the cause of the blaze. The city's office of the Chief Medical Examiner, has ruled that each of the deaths were an accident, but what exactly is an accident? I spoke with Jessie Singer, an investigative journalist and author of There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price, which is scheduled for release next month.
Jessie Singer: When it comes to accidental death in the United States, very little is random or unpredictable here. We know that because if that were true, if accidents were random and unpredictable, they would be randomly and unpredictably distributed across the US, but that is not true. Risk exposure and vulnerability define who dies by accident in this country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do we see instead is since we're not seeing a random pattern, what does the pattern of accidental death look like?
Jessie Singer: The pattern of accidental death most starkly appears different, racially, and economically in accidents that are dictated by policy decisions, that are affected by how resources are distributed around the country, by the state of our infrastructure. When we look at how accidental death strikes differently, we see that people of color are more likely to die of accidental chemical exposure, of accidental drowning, in accidental traffic crashes, in accidental fires, just to name a few.
We also see state by state and county by county differences directly related to economic inequality. You look at a place like West Virginia, where poverty rates are high. That's one of the most "accident-prone" places in the country, and just across the state line in Virginia, just a few miles away, half as many people die by accident, the rate is half. To me, that indicates that there are no accidents rather there are just some deaths and injuries that we classify under this magic word of accident allowing us to ignore and not recognize the crisis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Does that seem to be what we might have once called benign neglect? In other words, we genuinely don't see it and we don't notice it for populations who we tend to shunt out of public view based on race, national origin, or particularly, class, or are these egregious, almost purposeful oversights?
Jessie Singer: I think that something that happens with accidental death that is somewhat unique to these ideas of unintentional injury, of unintentional harm is that we focus in on the last person who made a mistake, the person who left their space heater on, the person who left the door open in the fire. In that obsessive focus on blame and this one person, we make accidents about personal responsibility and therefore, miss the systemic patterns that could lead us to preventing the harm of these disasters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Obviously, when you mentioned there, leaving a door open, when you mentioned a space heater, all of us are still thinking about and mourning, and asking questions about what happened in the Bronx. When you see not only that Bronx fire but other similar fires, what do you see?
Jessie Singer: I can not see other similar fires. When we look across the country, Black people are killed in accidental fires at twice the rate of white people. We could call that an accident if we want but we're just lying to ourselves. What I see in that fire, first and foremost, is quite a bit of blame for the victims. We're talking about broken space heaters, we're talking about doors left open, and we're not having a conversation about why in a city where heat is a legal requirement, anyone needs a space heater. Why in a city where self-closing doors are required in an apartment of size that matters that a door could be left open.
These are the systemic harm-reducing devices that we supposedly have built into our infrastructure so that when people make mistakes, the consequences are deadly. We're in a moment where those systems are failing, they're unregulated, they're unenforced. They're especially unenforced for low-income people, for people living in poverty, and for people of color.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think when we hear the words deregulation, any of a number of things might come to mind but not really accidental death. I'm not sure that we would particularly link deregulation to accidental death but that's precisely what you're able to show.
Jessie Singer: Where do we die by accident? We die by accident in our homes, we die by accident on our roads, and we die by accident in our workplaces. These are all areas of the built environment that in the 1970s, we built a robust system to regulate, to hold corporate power to account, to make sure that they were protecting people that was fully in their ability to protect, but as those institutions, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, NHTSA and OSHA, as they become defanged, their budgets shrank, their staff shrunk, we die more by accident.
That's one point I really want to make that this is an unrecognized ignored crisis to the point of 173,000 people being killed every year. That number is rising today, and it has been rising since the early '90s.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I use this word purposely, what kind of levies do we need to ensure that it certainly won't end all accidental deaths but to ensure that we would be looking at random and actual accidental deaths, rather than deaths from neglect?
Jessie Singer: Solving the accidental death crisis is a two-fold issue. On one end, we need to respond systemically. We need regulations that rein in corporate power, that create real financial penalties for failing to keep people safe when it is in your power to keep people safe. When you are a landlord, when you are an employer, there needs to be a cost for that. We need regulations that can enforce it and then have staff and the power to hold people to account.
We also need to rebuild our infrastructure, and that includes the social safety net so that people have resources to protect themselves and the wherewithal to protect themselves so that driving to work or going to your job isn't a life or death proposition. I think the other aspect of this is a little cultural and social. We need to stop talking about perfecting behavior and start talking about preventing harm. If you look at something like the fire in the Bronx, a sprinkler system or self-closing doors should've been regulated into that building. Those things don't prevent people from starting fires, what they do is prevent the harm of a fire. Just like a seatbelt or an airbag, it doesn't stop people from crashing their car, it prevents them from getting hurt when the worst occurs.
Mistakes are inevitable, premature death is not. We need to stop trying to perfect people and prevent the harm. We do have the power to protect them. We know how to protect human life but we don't.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Does this story that you're telling us about accidents also fit with what we might think of as like natural disasters, like an ice storm?
Jessie Singer: Natural disasters like an ice storm is what we'd refer to as more of an act of God than an accident. The way the weather is totally outside of our control where things that affect accidental death are usually related to the built environment. However, because our accidental death is so wrapped up in the built environment and how our infrastructure is different around this country and policy decisions put us all at different levels of risk, what we see in these natural disasters is a rise in accidental death, when a blizzard struck Texas, for example.
Somewhat unexpectedly, last year, a large number of people died of accidental hypothermia because their homes weren't heated and those deaths are going to increase as large storms and climate change drives us into more unpredictable weather. Accidental deaths are going to increase as these "acts of God" get more intense, hit us harder. I think another thing we saw here in New York City, was a rise in people who accidentally drowned in their own homes when a storm that struck all the way in Louisiana's across the country with such strength that it hit New York City, hard enough to cause massive flooding.
That's a result of infrastructure, that's a result of unregulated basement apartments. It's also a result of what we're doing to our climate and how that's putting us all more at risk of accidental deaths. Another thing we're seeing is a rise in emergency migration and accidents that are coming from that. As climate change drives more people from the global south to cross the border and to cross the border in increasingly desperate ways, there have been a number of massive car accidents on the Texas and California border where 20, 30 people are crammed into a vehicle speeding across country lines and are getting into horrible accidents.
These natural events do interact with our totally unstable and inequitable built environment in ways that can be unpredictable, but the consequences are no less horrific.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What would you say to those who might say, "Ugh, this is the nanny state. The government knows better than you, how to protect you and your family, and so let us regulate you into unfreedom."
Jessie Singer: I never understand this concept of why not-- Literally, a nanny is a human being you hire to keep your child alive because children are vulnerable. Then we hit a certain point and we don't become invulnerable when we're past the age of needing to be nannied. We just are suddenly in this cultural environment where risks are personal responsibility despite known safety mechanisms, known ways to protect people.
One thing I like to talk about when it comes to accidental death and understanding that this really is about risk exposure and how we are differently exposed to policy decisions that affect our likelihood of survival is choking on food. Across the United States, we all accidentally die from choking on food at the same rate. We don't all accidentally drown at the same way or die in traffic crashes, those things are affected by race and class because they're a matter of infrastructure. Choking on food, not so much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jessie Singer, is an investigative journalist, an author of the forthcoming book, There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster―Who Profits and Who Pays the Price. Thanks so much, Jessie.
Jessie Singer: Thank you so much for having me.
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