Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Scientific Racism

As a science major, I was very interested in the few mentions of scientific racism we had in the course, including topics like phrenology and drapetomania. I was also intrigued by the role of science in institutionalizing white supremacy as a response to doubts about the ethics of slavery. I also attended Dr. Owens’ lecture, “Defining Blackness,” which discussed black women exploited for medical advancements, particularly in the field of gynecology.
            I came across a video interview of the author of a book detailing black abuse in science called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. I encourage you all to at least read some of the transcript of the interview at the bottom of the page in order to get a sense of the widespread consequences and timeline of this exploitation.
            Harriet Washington, the author, not only specifies instances of abuse in medical history that are relatively well known, such as the Tuskegee disaster, but also articulates instances of more recent, appalling abuse that are often overlooked. To start the interview, she outlines the beginnings of unethical experimentation of blacks as stemming from a general concept of “scientific racism.” This well accepted thought process claimed that Negros were fundamentally sub-human and therefore white supremacy was justified. She then goes on to talk about exploitation in times of slavery, including speaking about the horrors of Dr. James Marion Sims, the physician mentioned in Dr. Owens’ lecture as responsible for the modern field of gynecology through the unethical use of black women’s bodies as experimental material. In addition to his abuse of women in medicine, Washington also describes Dr. Sims’ propensity to operate without anesthesia, including on the involuntary jaw removal for one young black boy.
           She goes on to discuss the infamous Tuskegee syphilis disaster, in which black men were given syphilis without their knowledge or consent and subjected to experimentation for forty years. In addition, these men were not given the penicillin cure when it was developed and the doctors who headed the initiative were never charged.
            All of this information leaves the reader in disgust of the lack of action taken against this inequality issues seen in the past. It is easy to think back in horror, but Washington argues that racial exploitation in medical science continues today. She gives an example of one black man who went missing in 1977 and was not reported in any hospitals, yet ended up on a dissection table because one hospital claimed no one had inquired about the man even when there was evidence to the contrary. The famous Mississippi neurosurgeon Andy Orlando did experiments on the brains of black men without any signs of illness and is still revered as a hero for his work. Young African America girls in the Baltimore school system were forced into experiencing Norplant implantations as an experimental testing for the long-term contraceptive device, which caused severe complications, including depression, and has since been removed from the pharmaceutical markets. The testing was not presented as an experiment, but rather a solution to teenage pregnancy. Black boys also had their share of experiments. In 90’s New York city, around 100 black boys were given fenfluramine injections to measure levels of violence. Boys in the experiment were pooled from the juvenile justice system and were required to be black; white boys would not serve the purposes of the “violent” nature of the drug. Most of these instances have occurred within the last sixty years. A major problem lies in the fact that black children are “much more likely have their parents removed from the informed consent equation…(and be) institutionalized than white children.”
Though perhaps less blatantly, Washington claims that scientific racism still plays a role in society. We have talked a “post-racial” America for a while now in class. Do you think this medical evidence points supports or refutes the theory of a “post-racial” society? Do you believe current medical treatment still exploits African Americans for gain?


  1. I think what you have posited definitely refutes the idea of a "post-racial" America. Just economic indicators alone show the discrimination of African-Americans. For example, in my Urban Studies class, I learned that the poverty rate among minorities, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics, is thrice that of Caucasians. Unemployment rates are completely skewed towards African-Americans. These statistics easily show us the ubiquitous nature of racism. However, in my class, we talked about how many people are unaware of the racist attitudes that they harbor, which is frustrating. However, I really like the way that Washington approaches possible remedies to scientific racism. She believes in raising awareness through educating participants in what their rights are and how to protect themselves. I never considered that monetary compensation could lead to discrimination as well. I love the way she ended the interview saying that though apologies are welcomed, it’s not enough. Instead, resources should be allocated towards educating African Americans in raising awareness concerning medical research.

  2. Thank you for posting this; I was not aware of all these instances of medical experimentation of African Americans. A lot of the examples that you described reminded me of the medical experiments that were performed on Jewish concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. I wrote a paper about this for my Life class last year and I learned that many of the doctors who performed these experiments justified their actions by saying that Jews were biologically inferior to other humans and believed they were disposable, so if they died from exposure to harmful bacteria or deliberate infections, it was acceptable because it was all in the name of science. This same mindset was also applied to medical experiments on blacks; since scientists did not view African Americans as humans, they did not have to be respected or treated as humanely as whites. There has been a shift, however, in that there are more cultural misconceptions about African Americans that perpetuate racism and stereotyping as opposed to perceptions of structural differences between races. Therefore, I think these experiments refute the concept of a “post-racial” America, especially since they happened relatively recently in American history. I do not think current medical treatment still directly exploits African Americans, but there are certainly healthcare disparities between whites and African Americans that sustain inequality because they are so embedded into our society.