Medical Racism has Shaped U.S. Policies for CenturiesRoundup
tags: medical history, COVID-19, medical racism
Deirdre Cooper Owens is an educator, administrator and author of the award-winning Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology. Follow her on Twitter @drcooperowens.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the glaring disparities between racialized groups, especially African Americans and White people.
At the start of the crisis in spring 2020, Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and Illinois, states that rank poorly in terms of quality of life for African Americans, and both North and South Carolina — Southern states with significant Black populations — had disproportionately higher rates of coronavirus cases and deaths among Black residents than White residents. Public health officials warned Americans that these disparities would reveal how medical racism, poverty, co-morbidities and labor conditions combine to harm African Americans.
They were not being hyperbolic in declaring medical racism a public health crisis.
Medical racism is not a new phenomenon. It did not start with either the Tuskegee syphilis study (an unethical experiment from 1932 to 1972 that the U.S. Public Health Service commissioned to study the effects of syphilis on 600 Black men in Alabama) or Henrietta Lacks, the mid-20th-century Black woman suffering from cancer whose cells became the first immortalized cell line in history. The origins stretch back centuries and created a system of belief and practice that allowed doctors to place blame on Black people for not having the same health outcomes as White people.
In fact, the first exposé on the dangers of medical racism emerged during a pandemic that ravaged Philadelphia just years after the founding of the nation. In 1793, there was a yellow fever outbreak and Philadelphians were dying in large numbers. Physicians were overworked. Gravediggers were running out of space, and residents were panicked.
One of the country’s leading physicians and abolitionists, Benjamin Rush, asked Ministers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and Black entrepreneur William Gray, to call upon Black residents to assist in the effort to help end the yellow fever epidemic. Believing that Black people were more immune to it, Rush petitioned the leaders to have their community provide care and essential services for the larger White population. Allen and Jones protested, informing Rush that African Americans in the city were not only infected with the viral disease, but also dying of it in great numbers. Rush kept pressing and eventually the men agreed to solicit help from African Americans to stem the tide of the virus by performing labor as caregivers, grave diggers, body collectors, housekeepers and trash collectors.
**This piece is reprinted in collaboration with The Washington Post’s ‘Made by History.’
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