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Medical Apartheid; A Conversation on Health Race and Trust

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

By Suzannah Young

It’s about health, race, and trust.

Photo Credit to Wikimedia Commons

The current health care disparities prevalent in the black and brown communities have always existed, but COVID 19 has brought them to the forefront of issues in the past year.

Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid, spoke about some of these issues at a virtual event hosted by the Barry University Africana Studies Program and South Florida People of Color (SFPoC) on Feb. 22 as a part of a Black History Month collaboration.

Roni Bennett, Executive Director of SFPoC introduced the organization as one that works to “[raise] the consciousness of people by providing creative ratio healing education,” which she said helps individuals to break down the racist structure existent in their own lives.

The event began with what Bennett termed a ‘land acknowledgement.’ This included a brief reminder of how “Miami was founded on an exclusion in a ratio of many indigenous people” and that it is now our job to deconstruct the systems of oppression present today.

The eye-opening event continued as Dr. Pamela Hall, director of the Barry Africana studies program, took the time to “honor our African ancestors” by pouring three distinct libations as part of the African tradition.

Nevertheless, the star of the show was Harriett Washington herself. In her avid descriptions and detailed explanations of the work she has so passionately committed her life to, Washington painted a grotesque picture of the systemic racism and oppression that has contributed to an alarming amount of health care disparities in colored communities.

Specifically, Washington explained the causes and effects of environmental racism.

“If you read…language pertaining to socioeconomics…there’s this conflation of poverty putting you at risk and race putting you at risk with the implication that [environmental pollution disparities] is not really a racial issue - it’s poor people who fall victim,” Washington said. “That’s not really true.”

Using data published in Who’s In Danger (2014), Washington backed her claims by showing how whites making less than $10,000 annually had less exposure to environmental toxins than blacks making around $50,000 - $60,000 in the same time frame.

Photo Credit to Wikimedia Commons

“Although there’s a lot of acknowledgement that people of color are disproportionately affected by poisoning… industrial chemicals…and air pollution…there’s been a bit of denial,” Washington said.

In her prolific career as a researcher and scholar, Washington has led fellowships at both Harvard and Stanford, and is currently teaching ethics at Colombia University. She has written many books and her work is published in many journals about environmental racism and medical disparities.

Of the six books written by Washington, topics discussed in the event focused primarily on those pertaining to Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Lead poisoning and IQ were two highlights of Washington’s lecture.

Washington explained that as whites began to flee the cities to suburban areas in what we now call “white-flight,” they were able to purchase new houses free of lead paint and lead structures. Meanwhile, people of color, trapped in the cities by “racist policies,” had no choice but to live with the poison.

Photo Credit to Pexels

“[The industry was] successfully able to demonize Hispanic and African American households in that way and escape responsibility…this is a pattern that is repeated frequently,” she said.

According to Washington, this manipulation and blatant racism was also prevalent in the scientific community, as it pertained to intelligence.

“Hereditarians are scientists who say that IQ is tied to race, and the IQ you have is genetically passed on. So, if you’re African American, you are fated to have an IQ that is on average 15 points lower than most white Americans,” Washington said.

The problem with IQ being deemed ‘genetic’ by these scientists, is that it falsified IQ as unchangeable - it could not be fixed, she explained. If this was the case, there was no need to increase funding to these communities where there was what was seen as an unsolvable problem.

After discussing these disparities amongst many others from her books, Washington ended the conversation with a note on the vaccine.

“People are justifiably mistrustful of vaccination campaigns, so we shouldn’t ask as if it’s something pathological when they raise questions and are reluctant,” Washington said.

In agreement with this, Hall questioned about the functionality of the vaccine, and if there is reason enough for colored communities to believe that it will not only work, but also not cause harm.

“I hope our government will start being a little bit more objective and honest, so people don’t have to worry about everything they need to know,” Washington said. "It’s a risk worth taking, in my opinion, and I hope everyone will take it.”

Photo Credit to Wikimedia Commons

As the topic of COVID-19 continued, Hall voiced further skepticisms concerning vaccines from attendees of the event, saying, “It’s not going to be easy to attack the health disparities that exist in the black and brown’s not going to happen overnight.”

One attendee asked what we can do as a community to aide in solving these problems.

“These assaults are not things that everyday people can control,” Washington said. “I always urge people to band together and put pressure on law makers.”

The conversation ended with voices raised in the black national anthem, an acknowledgement of all the work that has been done, but an awareness of all the work that is yet to come.

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