What is Medical Racism?
The history of medicine and health care in the United States is rooted in racism and marked by the mistreatment of Black Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. This history is woven into modern medicine and the impacts are still felt today. Medical racism is the term that is used to describe the systemic disparities people of color face within the medical field.
The medical field uses the same metrics for all humans of the same sex when it comes to biological function.
Tests that determine kidney function have used race as a variable since 1999. The National Institute of Health states that Black Americans can have higher levels of serum creatine, a biological waste product, in their blood even with properly functioning kidneys. Because race is a self-reported metric and there is a large variance in the genetic ancestry of people who identify as Black, a misdiagnosis based on the race variable could lead to negative health outcomes.
Most physicians in the U.S. agree to some version of the Osteopathic or Hippocratic Oath, a set of ethics that states medical professionals will protect and treat their patients with the greatest care possible. Studies have shown that Black Americans get less, and sometimes worse, care than White Americans. These differences can lead to distrust in medical professionals, which can cause people to skip potentially life-saving actions, like getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Addressing racism, discrimination, and other systemic barriers within the health care system must happen to effectively promote health equity for all Americans.
A Dark History for White Coats
Black people, especially Black women, have endured violent medical “treatment” and experimentation since the first enslaved people arrived in the British Colony of Virginia in 1619. Enslaved Black people's bodies were exploited for the development of some aspects of U.S. medical education in the 19th century. Medical schools relied on enslaved Black bodies as “anatomical material” and recruited students in southern states by advertising the abundance of such “material.” This practice was widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
American medical education relied heavily on the theft, dissection, and display of Black bodies.
The Virginia Medical College employed a Black man named Chris Baker as its “resurrectionist” to steal freshly buried Black bodies to use for dissection. Baker was the resurrectionist from the 1880s until his death in 1919. The Medical College of Georgia purchased an enslaved man, Grandison Harris, to work as the resurrectionist in 1852 and he remained in the position after Emancipation. Although White people also worked as resurrectionists, Black people's entry into segregated cemeteries attracted less attention. The exploitation of these people’s bodies–even after death–was another example of how racism was maintained in medical institutions.
In some specialized fields, medical professionals relied on experimentation on enslaved peoples and their labor. James Marion Sims, widely held as the founder of gynecology in the United States, came to many of his discoveries in the 19th century by experimenting on enslaved women. These women were also forced to perform domestic duties and serve as nurses in his clinic. As put by historian Deirdre Cooper Owens, early gynecologists treated enslaved women as “flesh-and-blood contradictions, vital to their research yet dispensable once their bodies and labor were no longer required.”
Pain is perceived differently by people of different races.
The belief that there are biological differences between races is something that has persisted throughout the medical field since the era of slavery in the United States. The claim that Black people could not feel pain in the same way as White people was used as a way to justify the inhumane treatment of those who were enslaved. Just as race is not real in terms of biology, neither is this notion. While pain may be perceived differently from person to person, the variance in perception has nothing to do with race.
Other examples of medical racism or medical topics with roots in racism include:
- Maternal Mortality rates
- Henrietta Lacks’ cells
- Sickle cell disease
The history of medicine and health care in the U.S. is marked by racial injustice and many forms of violence: unequal access to health care, the segregation of medical facilities, and the exclusion of people of color from medical education, among others. These–together with inequalities in housing, employment opportunities, wealth, and social service provision–produce health disparities that drastically affect people of color. The medical community must confront these painful histories of structural violence to develop more effective public health and medical care.