This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.
In June of 2020, when COVID-19 infection numbers in this country were climbing at a frightening rate, especially in communities packed with people of color, Senator Steve Huffman asked the Ohio Commission on Minority Health if “African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups?” This man’s woefully misguided, microaggressive, unquestionably racist question represents an insidious brand of ignorance: the idea that Black people get sick and die because we simply don’t take care of ourselves.
Not only is this idea untrue, but it is also an idea that overlooks the completely understandable mistrust that many African Americans have of medical professionals.
Take for example, Tuskegee. In 1932, doctors began experimenting on 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama. By using the local colloquialism “bad blood,” doctors convinced these farmers that they were receiving treatment for an ambiguous ailment when in reality they were observing the long-term effects of untreated syphilis in the bodies of the men who had contracted it, all the while telling the men they were receiving free medical care. This “experiment” continued for forty years, being brought to a stop only when an Associated Press article exposed the experiment.
Tuskegee is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg for Black Americans’ collective mistrust of medical professionals. For instance, HeLa cells have been instrumental in treating disease for decades due to their immortality. Although the African-American woman from whom these cells were extracted lives on in them, she herself never consented to the use of her cells for medical experimentation. In fact, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells did not render their owner herself immortal. Instead, Lacks died at the age of 31, never knowing her cells were extracted and had lived longer than any others before.
Neither did Lacks’ family know or consent to such usage of her cells. They weren’t made aware of their family member’s significant contribution to medical advances until twenty years after her death.
If we reach back even further into our history books, we will find that our first president’s dentures were not made of wood, as we may have heard in school. Instead, George Washington’s dentures were constructed from a variety of materials, including real human teeth from purchased enslaved people.
Health struggles for Black Americans persist in the present day as well: Black maternal mortality is at a crisis point. Frequently, Black women are believed not to be suffering from pain or not to be in treatment, despite what patients themselves describe to doctors when they ask for help. Such disbelief on the part of medical professionals can be easily traced back to James Marion Sims. Lauded as the father of modern gynecology, Sims, along with far too many of his contemporaries, believed that Black people were a subhuman species who did not feel pain or anxiety. Therefore even though anesthesia was introduced in 1846, Sims didn’t use it when he performed surgeries on the enslaved women he used to build up his own medical “expertise.”
It’s no wonder then, that even rich and famous Black women are not exempt from the spectre of life-threatening postpartum complications. Serena Williams shared her harrowing experience with a pulmonary embolism following the birth of her daughter several years ago.
As recently as December 2020, Dr. Susan Moore documented the unethical lack of treatment she received for COVID, before she died from the disease for which she had been belatedly hospitalized and poorly treated. Moore had been sent home more than once even though she exhibited severe COVID symptoms, and even as she lay in what would be her deathbed, some of the medical professionals entrusted with her care denied her pain medicine and ultimately failed to treat her symptoms adequately.
Although I have not been able to stomach all the grotesque, vivid details of medical experimentation on Black bodies outlined by the brilliant medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington in Medical Apartheid, her work makes clear that the American system of chattel slavery went to great lengths to justify its maltreatment of Black bodies. Doing so meant enlisting medical professionals to uphold and perpetuate myths about Black bodies’ ability to withstand pain and therefore brutal work conditions and inhumane treatment.
In the end, it’s this knowledge that Senator Huffman clearly lacks, as do those who think like him. Black Americans do not find themselves suffering poorer health outcomes than other racial groups because we don’t take care of ourselves. Rather, Black Americans find themselves suffering poorer health outcomes because of an entire system and government that have intentionally propped themselves up by dehumanizing Black people. This was true in 1619. This is true in 2021.
The bad blood between medical science and Black Americans is deeply rooted in the white supremacy that has shaped this country and its subjugation of Black bodies.
As you watch the YouTube videos I’ve linked as source material this week and read through the excerpt from Medical Apartheid, I hope that you will consider these questions:
- When in your own mind have you compared disparate health statistics across ethnic groups and assumed fault lay strictly within the parameters of personal responsibility and choice?
- How does a failure to interrogate such an assumption cause harm to the people of color in your life – your friends, neighbors, and family members?
- What action can you take today to support the just work of closing race-shaped gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy?
As always, I hope you’ll continue to engage with me in this work, week by week, and ultimately that you will cultivate in yourself the habit of questioning your assumptions so that you can unlearn biases, especially those you didn’t know you had.
Let’s keep working together to build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.