Harriet A. Washington on the Scientific Exploitation of Black Communities

As part of the 2022 Virtual Black History Month Festival promoted by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), writer and bioethicist Harriet A. Washington brought attention to the exploitation of African Americans within the history of medicine. The event was broadcasted live and a recording was made available shortly after, making the information widely accessible. With Samuel Roberts as the moderator, they covered political aspects of medical racism, emphasizing the unethical practices of scientific institutions shrouded by their prestigious titles. This author talk with Harriet A. Washington and Samuel Roberts delves further into correcting the history of medical and environmental racism that has caused a disproportionate and severe health risk for African Americans to this day. This robust discussion also invites audiences to garner a sense of black nationalism and its core values.

In introducing the topic of medical racism, Samuel Roberts notes that this issue is not simply about racist doctors, but rather the systems which exploit low-income communities of color. This opens the floor for Washington to elaborate on the U.S patent system and as viewers, it enables us to draw parallels between modern medicine and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In both cases, African Americans are separated from the drugs they need and left to believe that the different drugs they are being given are helping maintain their health. This lack of informed consent of their participation in research studies is an extremely detrimental form of scientific exploitation that preys on black people.

In 2006, a black woman by the name of Martha Milete was shot in the chest due to a home invasion and was given an experimental treatment without proper permission. Instead of the EMTs providing the standard of care, a patented fluid meant as a blood substitute known as polyheme was injected into her body and blood samples were later taken by medical professionals solely for research purposes. It must be noted that polyheme, at the time, was not FDA approved. In fact, this fluid created by Northfield Laboratories Inc was tested in a hospital study that had to be terminated because of its high amount of fatalities. Even though Milete was able to withdraw from the study, this only meant that the researchers would not use her data. Withdrawal does not excuse the disregard for her consent as a patient in a clinical trial and it certainly did not have the ability to reverse the polyheme that medical professionals already put in her system. 

Milete’s experience with medical care in 2006 is one that is very reminiscent of the unethical practices administered in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted in 1932. The black men used as subjects in the syphilis experiment were never properly informed of the research study’s true purpose. While researchers aimed to observe the progression of syphilis in absence of certain treatment, the patients were told that their conditions would be cared for at little to no charge (White et al. 809). And as people whose health care options were already very curtailed, black patients were ultimately targeted for exploitation. Scientists denied them of penicillin so their bodies could be autopsied and black men continued to suffer from the toxic effects of mercury and arsenic.

The poor medical care provided to African Americans in these two experiments shared uncanny similarities despite their 74 year gap. Valuable information was deliberately hidden from the patients in order to facilitate a research study they were not informed of. Although physicians were well aware of the scientific exploitation at play, they continued to administer practices known to cause more deaths than the standard of care because law permitted it. As in the Tuskegee and polyheme trials, there were intellectual developments in health approved by institutions, and yet there was no proper consultation with the patients whose lives are ultimately threatened by those decisions. And it is in these parallels that the scope of medical racism can be clearly understood to be a problem within all levels of authority due to their disregard for the wellbeing of communities of color. 

Following the discussion about scientific exploitation of African Americans, the author talk also weighed in on how environmental racism driven by the greed of new and existing industries has resulted in an increased health burden for African Americans. As a result of redlining, steering, and blockbusting, blacks were confined to the inner cities which became grounds for poverty and industrial pollutants (White et al. 858). These historical discriminatory practices by the government and real estate companies still pose long term effects for African Americans today and more specifically, contributes to disproportionate exposures to toxins that assail the brain. Compounded with racist agendas and lack of regulatory action by prestigious institutions, the health of black communities are yet again underserved.

By connecting with environmental epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean, Washington allowed viewers to recognize the severity of being exposed to industrial pollutants and the scientific racism that is still prevalent in modern research. It was found that toxic exposures to chemical pollutants during early development can lead to functional deficits and higher susceptibility to disease later in life (Grandjean et al. 73). But because of inadequate industrial chemical testing on children under the age of two, disruptive behaviors that develop several years into the span of their life are hardly connected to these toxic exposures. Instead, they are tied to genetics, thus fuelling the racial ideologies that attribute African Americans with low intelligence.

The focus of health disparities is placed on genetic studies which enables scientists to argue that people of color are suffering due to their ancestry rather than addressing and reducing the environmental hazards that target marginalized communities. To address this disproportionate exposure to chemical toxins means to also acknowledge the discriminatory housing practices that have significantly hindered black advancement for decades, a reality that would thwart the political ambitions of some scientists. Additionally, industry denial about chemical exposure and reluctance to impose policy action perpetuates the likelihood of polluting industries to inhibit inner cities. This is further explored by Jill Johnston, assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, and Lara Cushing, assistant professor in the Department of Health Education at San Francisco State University, who concluded that industries pose unique health risks to communities living near industry due to toxic chemical exposure. The data collected by community organizations have, in many cases, been deemed as insufficient to prompt regulatory action (Johnston and Cushing 48). Industrial scientists are then able to claim that their pollutants are not the cause of adverse health effects and thus continue to plague low-income communities of color and maintain their prestigious status.

During the discussion led by Washington and Roberts, the live chat was filled with many supportive comments and more specifically, traces of black nationalism. User Tanya Handy commented, “I would like to know how we can solve our medical apartheid problems using human rights and self determination as solutions”. Although left unanswered, this commitment to taking responsibility for their destinies regardless of external forces fosters black pride. Another viewer commented that radical self care is critical for a movement that aims to reduce health disparities. These reactions even reflect Black thought in the years of Jim Crow, aligning with Booker T. Washington’s advocacy for self help and solidarity (White et al. 1149). This dedication to uplift and preservation of the idea that black people are a nation within a nation has evidently sustained itself through centuries, making its way onto virtual platforms. And so it is to be expected that they will continue to serve as powerful motivators for black communities as they have shown to be fundamental elements of black nationalism.

It seems that the emergence of a pandemic once again unveiled the long-standing health inequities of the US and thus gave Harriet A. Washington’s novel, Medical Apartheid, a second life. Viewers of her author talk are given insight about how marginalized groups have long been victims of abusive research experiments, serving the needs of other people as research subjects even without providing informed consent. Moreover, those who live in inner cities, which is largely populated by minorities due to historical discriminatory practices, face additional health risks which are in part brought upon by racist agendas of hereditarian scientists. The health of people of color in America is continuously put on the backburner by the institutions whose decisions are made without the consultation of those who are most affected by them. The audience engagement of this Black History Month event, however, presents a hopeful future motivated by the ideals of black nationalism. It is clear that people are eager to understand the way race challenges our efforts to eliminate health inequities and are willing to correct the errors of the past.



Works Cited

Grandjean, Philippe et al. “The faroes statement: human health effects of developmental exposure to chemicals in our environment.” Basic & clinical pharmacology & toxicology vol. 102,2 (2008): 73-5. doi:10.1111/j.1742-7843.2007.00114.x

Johnston, Jill, and Lara Cushing. “Chemical Exposures, Health, and Environmental Justice in Communities Living on the Fenceline of Industry.” Current environmental health reports vol. 7,1 (2020): 48-57. doi:10.1007/s40572-020-00263-8

White, Deborah Gray, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents, Third Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, (2020).

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