Being Black: Facing Medical Racism
By River Somerville

From the syphilis outbreak to COVID-19, Black people have struggled during national health crises throughout history. Some may be familiar with the general—more blatant—discrimination Black people continue to face in this country, but they may be less aware of how racism manifests in the medical field. From 1932 to 1972, many Black patients were given -- without consent -- ineffective “medical” treatment that furthered ailment, suffering, and death in exchange for free medical care: this was known as the Tuskegee Experiment. According to the Young Women’s Christian Association, medical racism is “ the systematic and wide-spread racism against people of color within the medical system.” Both contemporary and historical statistics and personal accounts emphasize the lack of trust felt by many Black Americans towards American medicine, which has jeopardized their health time and time again.

Prime manifestations of medical racism can be observed to this day. Black people in the United States are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and 2.8 times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts (CDC). This unjust disparity is because Black people tend to work more “essential jobs” or lower-income jobs due to a history of discrimination in many economic aspects: the lack of generational wealth, college degrees, and more. So, close-quartered jobs—working at a supermarket, a retail store, or any job that requires physical human interaction and the inability to work remotely—are more common occupations in the Black community: this poses greater health risks for them. Another historical example of an unfortunate and risky disposition of Black Americans appeared during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The lack of healthcare and social care for Black people contributed to them having the highest number of cases among those diagnosed and accounting for 43% of cases in the United States (CDC,

In addition to inaccessibility worsening the relationship between Black people and American medicine, there lies interpersonal and structural prejudice—written and unwritten—that the community faces. According to a case study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, African Americans are more likely to distrust physicians due to incompetence during their visits, which often leads to a decline in returning patients. One participant claimed that due to their lack of insurance, the doctors who are more interested in the money did not show true care for them. Additionally, due to these subpar experiences, in recent months, the display of hesitance by many Black people toward the COVID-19 vaccine has increased (TIME).

Even when money is not of concern, prominent figures also experience medical racism. For example, Serena Williams was denied a CT scan after giving birth, which almost proved fatal. She claimed that doctors and the health care system have not been listening to Black women, even when confronted with their blatant pain and suffering. Williams is not alone in this claim. The CDC reports that Black women are 3.2 times more likely to die during childbirth than their white female counterparts (CDC). Much of the disbelief and discredit to Black people in their confession of discomfort lies within America and Europe’s dark history involving eugenics.

Nominal sciences may be a new concept for some. Science is supposed to be one of the most objective structures to ever exist, but unfortunately, it can be severely partial. Defined as “the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits ( Editors),” eugenics is no innocent pseudoscience. Eugenics has been used to justify the aforementioned injustices (Serena Williams’ strength, the expendability of Black people in the Tuskegee Experiment). It was used to fuel the violence of World War Nazis—as well as some practices of American scientists in the 19th and 20th century—to prove that Jewish people and Black people had inferior anatomical features compared to those of their “racial superiors.” To this day, much of the prejudiced thinking of said scientists has become entangled in the medical field, harming many Black people who seek help for their ailments.

This piece may cause anger, frustration, or fear for the reader. Many are not doctors but still have the power to fight and advocate. Christine Akechi, a British OB/GYN writing for the British Medical Journal (BMJ), suggests that honest conversations are key and that they come in many forms: discussing the lack of reconciliation of medical racism in much Western history, providing equitable and fair access to medical care, dismantling closed mindsets, and opening the floor to more caring and urging behavior against injustice. Hopefully, this article spreads awareness so that when encountering medical racism, one will stand and educate. As James Baldwin once said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”