Since the publication of 1985’s Heckler Report — the first detailed documentation of racial bias in healthcare — numerous studies have come to the same conclusion: healthcare professionals continue to misperceive black people as less sensitive to pain than white people, regardless of their education level, socioeconomic status, or health history. With already over 2,300 alumni in medical and healthcare professions, as a predominately white institution, it’s important for our pre-health and pre-medical students and faculty to educate themselves on the history of the exploitation of black bodies in the name of science. It is undoubtedly a matter of life and death.
The idea that black people feel less pain than white people originated during the age of slavery, the most notorious example of which was in the practice of surgeon J. Marion Sims. Revered as the “father of modern gynecology,” Sims has monuments dedicated to his achievements in improving women’s healthcare across the world. Sim’s medical “achievements” are the product of countless tortuous experiments conducted on enslaved black women intentionally unanesthetized. We’ve lost many of their names to time, but three that we do know are Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. Instead of championing Sims as a pioneer of gynecological science, we need to recognize that, as Sara Spettel and Mark Donald White aptly concluded, “he is a prime example of progress in the medical profession made at the expense of a vulnerable population.”
Medical experimentation and malpractice continued well into the 1900s. All it takes is a simple Google search of “Tuskegee experiment” or “eugenics in America” to discover the rabbit hole of dark, sickening human rights violations that plague our history. While medical racism may not seem as overt to white people as it was in previous centuries, many black Americans — women, in particular — have taken to sharing their experiences of mistreatment through social media, including Serena Williams, worldwide tennis superstar. After giving birth to her daughter in 2018, Williams realized that she was experiencing symptoms of pulmonary embolisms, a health issue she had struggled with prior to pregnancy. She described to Vogue how she had to beg the doctors and nurses to listen to her pleas for a CT scan. By the time they agreed to perform the scan, she already had “several small blood clots” in her lungs.
Complications during birth are far from rare, and an increasing number of women are suffering from health scares that are largely preventable. The maternal mortality rate for white women in Pennsylvania is 13.9 percent. For black women, that number skyrockets to 33.9 percent. While Pennsylvania’s statistic for black women is lower than the national average (a staggering 47.2 percent mortality rate for black women), the disparity between races is jaw-dropping, and not enough people — medical professionals and the general public — are aware of it. Williams came very close to becoming another statistic; her wealth and fame didn’t protect her. In fact, ProPublica revealed that black mothers with college degrees “fare worse than women of all other races who never finished high school.”
So if it’s not education, wealth, or health, what is killing black mothers? The answer is clear: systemic racism.
Just this past week, newsreels were dominated by pictures of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in blackface, of which he denied. Many news outlets are overlooking a glaring factor: the picture in question was featured in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. How many of those young students parading in blackface and KKK robes are medical professionals still operating today? Racists don’t fit into one stereotype; they are our doctors, our lawyers, our policemen. There is no miracle cure to weed out the racists in our institutions because these people are often keystones of these institutions, and they are operating them exactly the way they were designed. Without radical, comprehensive healthcare reform, there is no way we can dismantle the systemic racism of the healthcare industry. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And change starts with believing black women.