The sordid history of medical racism in the US

Systemic change long overdue

At the Doctors for Justice March on June 6, 2020 in Seattle, thousands of healthcare workers joined the nationwide mass upsurge against racist police brutality. PHOTO: Doug Barnes / FS
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Many people of color voice reluctance to get vaccinated even as Black, Indigenous and Latinx people, Pacific Islanders and immigrants suffer much higher rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths compared to whites. Why?

Because of justifiable distrust of the medical establishment based on its long history of abuse, neglect and racist experimentation. And the present is a continuation of the past. The reality is less availability of vaccines to people of color, inferior medical treatment and worse overall health because of inequities ranging from economic discrimination to biased care.

In order to gain the trust of those who have been injured, this country must confront its deep-seated history of medical racism. A tall order, since it is embedded in the capitalist system. But a fight that Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities ably continue to wage.

Medical malpractice. Racism, the unscientific myth of biological inferiority of people of color, was invented at the dawn of capitalism to justify colonization of the Americas and the enslavement of Africans. It thrives today to justify super-exploitation of workers of color, and as a lever to undermine working class solidarity. It’s pervasive, including in medical institutions. Racism and its cohorts of sexism, homophobia , transphobia, and xenophobia keep the profit system afloat.

Medical bigotry in the United States has involved callous experiments and cruel treatment. Indigenous nations suffered genocide by intentional infection with smallpox. Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of modern gynecology,” experimented on enslaved Black women — without anesthesia.

The Tuskegee syphilis study, begun in the 1930s by the U.S. Public Health Service, left hundreds of Black men with syphilis untreated for decades, long after penicillin was known to cure it. The “experiment” was not ended until exposed in the press in 1972.

African American Henrietta Lacks had cervical cancer tissue taken without her knowledge in 1951. Doctors cultured the sample into the HeLa cells which are still used globally in medical research. Lacks’ descendants were never compensated.

Some Japanese American women were forcibly sterilized in this country’s WWII concentration camps. In the 1950s, U.S. researchers used 1,500 poor women in Puerto Rico as guinea pigs to test oral birth control, not knowing its health consequences.

The racist pseudo-scientific eugenics movement was used to justify forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Black, Indigenous and Puerto Rican women. The Indian Health Service sterilized as many as 25-50% of Indigenous women through the 1980s. Last year a doctor in a Georgia detention center was caught sterilizing women without consent. (See “Forced sterilizations of women: Abuse of migrants and prisoners recalls ugly eugenics era” at socialism.com.)

In 2018, 2.5 times more Black women in the U.S. died during pregnancy than white women. In Louisiana, four times as many died. The disparity between Black and white infant mortality is worse today than before the Civil War.

This history carries over to the pandemic.

Covid racism. Nationwide data shows that Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders are receiving Covid-19 vaccinations at far lower rates than whites.

A disparity in chronic illnesses puts vulnerable communities at higher risk. Those with pre-existing conditions should be among the first vaccinated regardless of age.

Essential workers, disproportionately people of color, also need the vaccine immediately. Those employed in transit, sanitation, field work, restaurants, and food production cannot work from home. Being low-income, they face obstacles such as no transportation to vaccine sites or access to a computer or the internet to schedule appointments. Hundreds of thousands who live unsheltered are more susceptible.

Our profit-based healthcare system is to blame for medical inequity. Drug companies are free to set high prices, even though vaccines were developed with taxpayer dollars. The U.S. and other rich countries have cornered vaccine supplies through the end of this year. Poor countries remain without access even if they could pay.

Fighting for solutions. Medical racism must be tackled head on. Organizing by Blacks and other people of color is a beacon guiding change. In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party organized free healthcare clinics and children’s breakfast programs that filled a void in vital services. Pittsburgh’s Freedom House Ambulance Service broke new ground in providing emergency paramedic services. Today’s immigrant rights movement is fighting deaths from abysmal healthcare in detention.

The U.S. has to reach out to communities that have been ignored and ensure access to information, testing, treatment and vaccines for all. It must acknowledge and make amends for medical racism.

All vulnerable populations must get the vaccine equally, free of charge. Distribution needs to be expanded to community centers, schools, libraries, churches and clinics set up in every neighborhood. Centralize healthcare and take the profit out of vaccines. Imperialist countries like the U.S. must provide vaccines to the global population, free of charge and as soon as possible. Expropriate Big Pharma and nationalize the entire healthcare industry under workers and community control. Ultimately, medical racism will only end when capitalism does.

Contact Alaniz, a Chicana feminist and immigrant rights activist, at yoli.alaniz@yahoo.com.

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