The Freedom to Harm vs. the Freedom from Harm

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: Adolfo Valle

The smartest piece I have read during the COVID-19 era is Ibram X. Kendi’s May 4 Atlantic article “We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic.”

When armed demonstrators appeared at the Michigan Capitol, protesting the state’s stay-at-home orders, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer noted that some of them “carried nooses and Confederate flags and swastikas.” “I love freedom,” one demonstrator told Fox News. “In America we should be free.” 

Kendi connects the dots — and the way he connects them has implications for how we teach about freedom, race, U.S. history, climate change, our relationship with the Earth, and the future of humanity. 

Kendi roots today’s tug-of-war over freedom in the country’s history of enslavement:

Slaveholders desired a state that wholly secured their individual freedom to enslave, not to mention their freedom to disenfranchise, to exploit, to impoverish, to demean, and to silence and kill the demeaned. The freedom to. The freedom to harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom to infect.

Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom — the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing. The freedom from. The freedom from harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom from infection.  

Proclamations that “we are all in this together” distract us from seeing how people’s responses to COVID-19 are rooted in a history of racial capitalism. Justifications for slavery — and for waging war to defend slavery — prefigure today’s shrill demands to “open up our country” in the name of freedom. 

For Kendi, the core struggle in U.S. history turns on two contradictory visions of freedom — individual freedom and community freedom: 

From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm. . . .

Slaveholders hardly seemed to care that secession was going to condemn the non-slaveholding southern community to war, to mass injuries and death on battlefields and in contraband camps. Slaveholders hardly seemed to care that the Confederate States would have been a veritable hell for poor, non-slaveholding whites and the hell of hells for enslaved Blacks. Too many Americans today hardly seem to care that withdrawing states from stay-at-home orders too soon would scarcely free their communities from the viral war, from mass infections, and deaths on hospital and bedroom beds, a veritable disaster for innumerable white Americans and a disaster of disasters for innumerable Americans of color.

Kendi reviews some of the brutal statistics that shine a light on the racial disparities of the pandemic. On April 24, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a former enslaving state, was the first governor to ease quarantine restrictions. The day before Kemp lifted the quarantine, five of the country’s 10 counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates were in Southwest Georgia. In each of these counties, Black people were the largest racial group. By early May, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 80 percent of hospitalized coronavirus patients in Georgia were African American. 

“Again and again,” Kendi writes, “white Americans have sacrificed the freedom from in pursuit of the freedom to. Again, and again, the price of those decisions has fallen on the heads of people of color.”

As Kendi concludes his article: “There is something about living through a deadly pandemic that cuts open the shell, removes the flesh, and finds the very core of American existence: the slaveholder clamoring for his freedom to infect, and the enslaved clamoring for our freedom from infection.”

“We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic” focuses on the pandemic, but let’s pick up Kendi’s analysis and lay it on top of the climate crisis — a crisis that will be more severe and more long-lasting than COVID-19, and in fact, will lead to more pandemics through destruction of animal habitat. Here, too, we find a war of freedoms. On the one hand, the capitalists, the fossil fuel industry, the bankers, Fox News, and Trump demand the freedom to mine, to drill, to frack, to mountaintop remove, to rape with pipelines, to colonize the atmosphere, to burn, to flood, to drown. 

The freedom to. The freedom to harm. Which is to say, in climate terms, the freedom to destroy.

On the other hand, the rest of the world — Indigenous communities, people of color, the Arctic, Pacific Islanders, the young, the old, threatened species — demand the freedom from breathing wildfire-polluted air, from bulldozed homes, from drowning, from becoming climate refugees, from drinking poisoned water, from conflagrations, from the fear to bring children into the world.

The freedom from. The freedom from harm. Which is to say, in climate terms, the freedom from destruction.

The individual freedom to wreck the world. Against the communal freedom to survive. This struggle needs to be at the heart of our curriculum. 

When we teach about climate change, it is easy to get lost in the details. No doubt, a climate justice curriculum is complicated. Educators need to equip students to understand the science that explains the basis of today’s climate chaos. We need to probe the causes of the crisis, looking at the commodification of nature in the Americas, which began as far back as Columbus; at the history of industrialization; at the rise of coal, oil, and gas; and at that industry’s disinformation campaign that obfuscated the inexorable rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We need to story the horrifically unequal consequences of climate change, which mirror the inequity we see playing out across our country and around the world in the pandemic. And we also need to expose students to the vibrant climate justice resistance that has blossomed into a social movement, and invite them to see themselves as a part of this movement, because activism is the only route to survival.

Kendi insists that we “open the shell” to examine the fundamental source of our predicament in the history of enslavers and the enslaved. When it comes to teaching the climate crisis, yes, let’s dive deep and help students sort through its causes and consequences. But we also should lift students out of these details. We need to help them see the battle that has raged — and still rages — over whose vision of freedom will prevail: the freedom to harm, or the freedom from harm.

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Bill Bigelow ( is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-editor of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Illustrator Adolfo Valle’s work can be seen at