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During these last two years dealing with Covid, I have seen people’s public reactions towards the virus and the vaccines. Many people of all races did not take the virus seriously and disobeyed the mask mandate and many are refusing to get the Covid vaccine. I took the virus seriously and have been vaccinated but a lot of my family were very skeptical of the vaccine and have not taken it. My family is Black, and they watch the news and have seen that Black Americans are suffering the most from Covid. It made me wonder why they are so untrusting of the vaccine when it’s protecting us. Recently during Thanksgiving, I heard one of my family members say that the vaccine “was not made for Black people.” Hearing this shocked me because it made me realize that a lot of my Black family members fear the medical industry and are very untrusting of what professional doctors have said about Covid. This prompted me to investigate the source of this mistrust towards doctors and I was shocked to see how deep this situation is. The medical field has been abusing and neglecting the Black body for over a century, starting from slavery and to the present day. Slavery allowed for Black bodies to be used as test subjects for White doctors to advance the medical field. Ever since then, throughout history, White doctors have abused their power to manipulated and harm Black People for science. I believe racism is embedded into the healthcaremedical industry and Black Americans are suffering from this. My research led me to ask, how has the historical abuse and neglect of the Black body conducted by a racist medical field led to Black Americans being fearful and untrusting of the healthcare industry?
The issue of medical abuse begins with slavery where the Black body was already being subjected to abuse by their White owners. Slaves did not have ownership over their own bodies which allowed the slave owners to sell them to other people for experimentation. Writer Stephen Kenny talks about historians James Breeden and Todd Savitt conducting in-depth studies on the exploitation of Black slaves. Their research found that the bodies of slaves were being trafficked in medical schools in Virginia so that these bodies could be used to instruct the students. During that time, upcoming White doctors viewed the slaves as commodities they could use to better their medical knowledge. They also believed that the slaves were disposable, so if they experimented on them and the slave passed away, they could always get another slave. Breeden and Savitt also discovered that the body parts of Black slaves were being used in medical societies for dissection and observing.
One case that displays the horrendous abuse of medical power during the period of slavery is the case of Charleston Elias S. Bennett and an unnamed child slave. According to journal entries from Bennett, he discovered a small tumor on a female slave when she was only four weeks old. He saw this as an opportunity for research and decided to surgically remove the tumor along with another apprentice doctor. During this time most of the tools and medication we have now did not exist, and this made this procedure extremely dangerous. Bennett went on to perform the surgery and noted that there were a lot of complications during it. As the young girl got older the growth of the tumor only got worse and she eventually died, most likely due to Bennett’s interference with it.
To these doctors, the Black body was not human, it was just a subject they could continuously use to conduct unethical procedures on. Some of these doctors that are praised today for making revolutionary medical discoveries are people who constantly abused Black people. Writer Harriet A. Washington has authored many articles and books on the medical torture of Black people, in one of her articles she exposed famed doctor James Marion Sims. Washington writes that she once thought that James Sims, also known as the Father of Gynecology, was the ‘medical hero’ history has named him. After further research Washington found out that Sims conducted many unethical and futile surgeries on female slaves. He would use Black women to conduct experimental surgeries to correct fistulas that can occur from protracted labor. Without the consent of the enslaved women, he would make cuts in their bladder, vagina, and rectum without putting them to sleep with anesthesia. This would leave the women with lifelong problems. He took what he learned from the experiments on the enslaved women and use it to help the White wives of slave owners. Unlike the enslaved women, he did put them to sleep using chloroform but horribly allowed the women’s husbands to have intercourse with them while sleeping. Washington found in further research that even though Sims claimed he wanted to cure the enslaved women; he would leave most of them with infections to pursue other research opportunities. There was a statue of James Sims in central park that was taken down when he was exposed but the damage he caused still lives on. Because of his journal entries stating that the Black slaves could withstand the pain of his procedures, he started the widespread lie that Black people cannot feel pain. This lie still impacts Black patients today and has embedded itself in medical history.
Black Bodies continued to suffer at the hands of a corrupt medical industry and the industry was able to thrive off this suffering. We expect that doctors should always be professional and have some sense of respect towards their patients, but this is not what Henrietta Lacks experienced. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five who was diagnosed with cervical cancer by Dr. Howard Jones at John Hopkins. She went through numerous radiation treatments to treat her cancer. While in treatment her cells were taken and studies by Dr. George Gey. Gey found her cells to be amazing because instead of dying, they duplicated. Lacks eventually did die because of her cancer but John Hopkins still had her cells. Without the permission of Henrietta Lacks or her family, they began to use her cells for research and still do till this day. Her cells have been used to make incredible medical discoveries and have even played a part in the creation of the Covid 19 vaccine. While medical companies have made millions from her cells, Lacks family has been fighting these companies that continue to profit from her. Henrietta Lacks is continuously disrespected after her death, most medical institutes including John Hopkins did not even recognize Henrietta until her family started bringing more attention to her story. This gross and invasive abuse of the body only got worse throughout history.
One of the most well-known cases of medical abuse is the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. The Tuskegee syphilis study was a case that displayed “the dangers of unchecked medical madness and the sexualized power of doctors over the innocent” (Reverby). Black men trusted these White doctors when they volunteered for the study, but in return they were manipulated. In 1932 the US Public Health Service conducted a study on Black men who already had syphilis. The men were under the impression that these doctors would be helping to cure them of their illness but they left it untreated for 40 years so they could study the effects. The doctors claimed that the volunteers had “bad blood” and put them through a series of unnecessary painful surgeries. The government allowed this unethical experiment to go on for years, even after some wives and children of the volunteers were diagnosed with syphilis. The government only put a stop to it in 1972 when an upcoming investigator brought this story to the media. The Tuskegee experiment left a stain on the medical field and was the turning point on the way Black Americans viewed the health care industry.
After 1972 when the Tuskegee study was brought to light, many Black Americans were disturbed and scared of the medical industry. The people who were supposed to help them were abusing them and taking advantage of the Black body. Though this abuse did not happen to all Black Americans it still traumatized them to see how racism is embedded in the medical field. Black Americans were so fearful of doctors, they began to avoid them. This led to a rise in preventable deaths and diseases in Black Americans. Medical Author, John Hoberman states that the Tuskegee experiment started a dangerous view of Black health and led Black Americans to believe rumors about the medical industry. A lot of Black Americans believed that the AIDS virus was a government plot orchestrated to kill off the Black community. This is not a factual statement, but relationships were bad between White doctors and Black patients and tensions were high, so they believed this to be true. Relationships between doctors and Black patients continued to deteriorate and impact the healthcare system.
Hoberman gives a different view on why relationships between White doctors and Black patients can be very conflicting. When some Black patients come in with diabetes, drug-related problems, or gunshot stabs wounds, White doctors start to stereotype Black patients and find it hard feel badly for them. Some White doctors have the notion that Black patients are prone to violence and this type of thinking influences the level of care Black patients receive. Hoberman states that there may also be times where Black patients may give white doctors a tough time, but this can happen with all patients. Regardless of if the patient gives the doctor a tough time or there’s a certain view of Black patients, the doctor is the one who is knowledgeable. The doctor is responsible for the patient, and it’s their job to treat them with the best care. The patient is the one who needs help and cannot control the narrative that has been painted about them. There is an obvious bias in White doctors towards Black patients that start within the education of doctors.
I, as someone not in the medical profession, believe that the medical field is built on racism and the problem is racist doctors. Dr. Larry Dossey has a different look at what the actual problem is. He states that the White dominated industry has been slow in acknowledging racial bias and the fears of Black patients. Many White doctors are blind to the discrimination and the unconscious bias that they may carry. They are not aware of this bias because the medical knowledge they have is embedded with racism. The problem may not be in the medical industry or the doctors, but in the teaching that has been passed down for decades. A lot of the knowledge that doctors now know was discovered by experimenting on Black patients, but they are not taught this. Dr. Amanda Calhoun states “the medical system is not stained with isolated historical atrocities like Henrietta Lacks, Havasupai, and Tuskegee; it is soaked with racism” (Calhoun). Most doctors are not aware of these atrocities because it has been wiped under the rug and ignored. Doctors like Calhoun and Dossey argue that racism in the medical field impacts both doctors and patients. The doctor’s treatment of Black patients is due to the lack of acknowledge that the Black body has been dehumanized for decades. Though I agree with both Dossey and Calhoun that some White doctors are just misguided. It does not excuse the fact that there is still a disproportionate rate of Black Americans dying due to the ignorance of white doctors.
Today, Black bodies are still being neglected, a lot of the times when Black patients go to White doctors their concerns are dismissed as paranoia. Black pain is not treated on the same level as White pain. Some doctors are hesitant to give Black patients strong pain pills while they are recovering from surgery. The bias shows up in situations such as this or when Black men are 30% less likely to be provided with proper diagnosis procedures. Black patients are also more likely to be misdiagnosed than any other race. When things like this are constantly happening, it is understandable why Black Americans find it hard to ask for help from the medical industry. Black mothers who rely on the medical field are terrified of giving birth because of the treatment they receive in hospitals. Black mothers are five times more likely to die during childbirth than White mothers because their worries and pain are often ignored. Black babies are also suffering at the hands of a neglectful medical field, government statistics are showing that Black children’s infant mortality rates are the highest. Black mothers are being traumatized from painful births and even the death of their babies. Regardless of White doctors being aware of bias or not, it’s costing Black patients their lives and adds to the generational medical trauma.
Decade’s worth of medical trauma and continuous issues within the medical field shows why Black Americans are so hesitant to take the Covid vaccine. This reluctancy to take the vaccine has a negative impact on the Black community. Black Americans are 1.4 times more likely to contract Covid than White Americans and 2 times as likely to be killed by it. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center showed that out of 71% of Black Americans who knew people impacted by Covid, only 42% would be willing to take the vaccine. They are scared of what’s in the vaccine and they have multiple reasons not to trust the vaccine. The strained relationship between doctors and Black patients does not help in encouraging them to take this vaccination. Times like this is where Black Americans distrust in the medical field is really dangerous. They are neglecting their health and the medical advances that are supposed to be helping them. Black Americans are the most vulnerable during this time of Covid, but they feel like they cannot trust anything. Many Black Americans believe that the vaccine will do more harm to them than good. There may be no way to ease the fear and mistrust that Black Americans have towards the medical system but there may be a way to prepare the next generation of doctors to do better.
In order to see change in the medical field and create a more positive relationship between Doctors and Black patients, there must be change in the knowledge of doctors. The medical system must incorporate in their teachings the many abused Black bodies that led to thousands of medical discoveries. Instead of excluding the fact that White doctors like Sims and Bennett tortured Black Women and children, the system must acknowledge that there is a long history of dehumanizing Black people. Amanda Calhoun states that doctors should correct other doctors when they may be showing bias towards Black patients. They must open their eyes to the obvious racism within the system and accept being uncomfortable when talking about how it impacts Black patients. Another problem within the system is the lack of Black doctors. Black Americans make up 13% of the US population but only 3% make up American doctors. There needs to be more opportunities for Black people to join not just the medical field but the mental health field as well. Black patients may find more comfort in going to a Black doctor because they could relate in a way White doctors cannot. Black doctors are also more likely to listen to Black patient’s concerns and empathize with their fears. Changing a system built on racism seems like an impossible task and it may not be achievable. Racism is not just a problem in the medical field but in all institutes and it will never go away. We must acknowledge the pain of Black people and listen to their voices; the dismissal of Black voices remains a big problem in the medical system. There must be change, Black Americans do not deserve to die at the hands of a system built to care for all people.
I don’t believe that all White doctors are racist or have ill intent when treating Black patients. Some white doctors are influenced by a racist medical system that chooses to ignore its wrongdoings. Not acknowledging the past allows white doctors carry bias at the expense of Black patients. Black people have suffered for centuries and continue to suffer by the hands of hospitals, police, schools, the work force, and more. They have no trust in systems that continuously abuse them and make no changes to their system. I also believe that Black Americans mistrust of the medical field is costing them their lives. When I hear my family members who already suffer from other sicknesses say they aren’t going to take the vaccine, it concerns me. Their fear is causing them to make choices that are hurting them and making them more vulnerable. There are so many different issues that contribute to the faulty medical system, a majority were not covered in this paper. I hope the healthcare system and the people who work within it bring light to unfair treatment of Black patients. I also want Black Americans to keep voicing their concerns about the medical system, the only way we can see change is if we demand it.
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