Some of my white friends might be hearing a lot of chatter these days that’s new for them about an unusual number of black people harboring a peculiar mistrust about the arrival of our long awaited coronavirus wonder drug. On 12/14/20, the first television image of an American taking a vaccine approved to fight the coronavirus was of a black woman doctor administering “the shot heard ‘round the world” to a black woman nurse. The import of this image is likely not obvious to many. That’s because our general knowledge of American history, from kindergarten straight through to a second master’s degree, is as full of holes as a block of swiss cheese. Full of holes and intentionally so, in order to preserve our sacred mythos of white advantage as the product of grit, meritocracy, and equal opportunity. Most importantly, our learning of the history of only the last few decades is woefully inadequate, allowing so many white people to interrogate any contemporary claims about white privilege with “my grandparents didn’t own slaves, what does all this have to do with me?”
You know black people are contracting the virus at greater rates than white people. There’s more to the story, though, that made seeing those two black health care workers notable and ties it into today’s #BlackLivesMatter discourse.
Surgeon J. Marion Sims is heralded as the father of modern gynecology. He finished his studies with no particular calling to medicine except as a vocation like any other likely to afford him an excellent living. That is to say, he wasn’t necessarily motivated by a deep love of humanity and a desire to abate suffering.
He had probably the most thriving practice of any surgeon in the state of Alabama during his time. Plantation owners brought enslaved women to him and he made a name for himself perfecting radical new surgical techniques on black women without anesthesia starting in 1845. Crawford Long first used ether as an anesthetic during a surgical procedure in 1842. Black women were seen as not worthy of the extra effort and expense. It was also a commonly held belief among whites that black people were capable of withstanding greater amounts of pain, undoubtedly as a way to justify the extreme working conditions and harsh punishments blacks were subjected to.
Women were literally held down to the table while Sims cut into their genitalia. Their pain did not matter, only the pursuit of advanced medical techniques to be used later on paying, anesthetized white women.
Sims went on to found a groundbreaking women’s hospital in New York City. He famously treated European royalty, and was unanimously elected president of the American Medical Association.
Mustard gas is a chemical warfare agent first deployed as a weapon in World War I. Exposure to it is known to cause severe chemical burns, mutations to DNA, leukemia, and a host of other ailments. During World War II, black soldiers (along with Puerto Ricans and some of Japanese descent) were locked into chambers and purposely exposed to mustard gas. The military was looking to test the hypothesis that black skin would be more resistant to its effects stemming from the belief, again, that blacks were capable of withstanding greater amounts of pain.
Professor Susan Smith at the University of Alberta surmises that the long term intent was to prove it feasible to send black soldiers out to the battlefront first and more frequently, potentially sparing white soldiers’ lives (because, you know, “all lives matter” equally). Soldiers were threatened, with dishonorable discharge or court martial, to keep quiet about the experiments. Decades later, when related illnesses began to manifest, they couldn’t talk openly with their health care providers to steer them toward effective treatments. Thus a black man with mysteriously flaking skin might continue to be uselessly treated for eczema and puzzling his doctor with the lack of a positive result. 90% of soldiers who claimed Veterans Administration disability benefits as a result of mustard gas exposure continued to be denied. You’ll be surprised to find that data from these experiments came to produce some of our earliest cancer chemotherapy treatments.
It’s only as I’m writing this do I realize the potential historic connection to the fact that my own grandfather, a veteran, was taken to his resting place by leukemia.
Gregory G. Pincus and John C. Rock were two white Harvard professors whose interests in the areas of conception, fertility, and overpopulation led to the development of the hormonal birth control pill. They first tested their product on a handful of women committed to a Massachusetts asylum. It was the 1950’s and the U.S. had pretty inflexible laws in place against birth control distribution, coupled with a moral sensibility against it. When it came time for large scale testing, the scientists knocked on doors in a neighborhood of farm laborers in Puerto Rico.
Poverty and desperation brought a steady pool of participants. The women were only told that this drug would prevent pregnancy, not that it was experimental, and weren’t given any heads up about possible risks. When they reported side effects of deadly blood clots, nausea and unexpected bleeding, the researchers dismissed their claims as being all in their petty little girl-y heads. Years later the original hormone levels were veritably deemed to be dangerously high and adjusted down. Three women died (“all lives matter!”). It isn’t known if their deaths were related because they were hastily buried without the benefit of a postmortem pathological examination.
The trials showed the pill to be effective, “Big Pharma” managed to get America over its squeamishness about contraception now that there was lots of dough to be made, and it was approved by the FDA in 1959. Rock and Pincus packed up their laboratories and made a cool fortune selling the sexual revolution to American women. Having outlasted their usefulness, the “Taínas” were left uncompensated for their participation and priced out of having the pills regularly accessible to them.
You’re probably hearing about the “Tuskegee Experiment” a lot lately. In 1932 the Center for Disease Control and U.S. Public Health Service enrolled 399 black men from Macon County, Alabama, barely eking out a subsistence as sharecroppers who were diagnosed with syphilis. They weren’t told of their illness. Another 201 otherwise healthy black men were also included as a control group. The incentive for participation was the promise of free health care. The men weren’t getting treatment of any kind for their illness, just testing, lies and placebos. Scientists wanted to observe the long term effects of syphilis left untreated. Originally the study was to last six months, afterwards the infected men would receive what treatment was available at the time. By the mid-1940’s penicillin was in common usage for syphilis. Information and treatment were withheld from these men for 40 years. As the men died and their wives and progeny were knowingly infected, doctors continued to tell them they were being treated for a diagnosis they were calling “bad blood.”
There were whistleblower attempts as early as 1955. All were easily dismissed and quieted because no one cared enough about a group of poor black men (say it again—“all lives matter!”). In 1966 Peter Buxtun, a white employee of the Public Health Service, began his attempts to bring about the study’s end. Federal forces doubled down on the importance and value of seeing the study through until all the men were dead and autopsied. Buxton went to the press and the project became front page news in 1972. After a public shaming and a congressional hearing, it was finally terminated. We’re not talking colonial slavery times people, I was in grade school in 1972 and some of you reading this were on your second or third child by then.
In Washington, D.C., the black population is reported to be around 46%. Of the Covid related deaths in that city, 74% were black people. Except for a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ after a player kneels during the national anthem at an NFL game, black people aren’t seeing a lot of evidence that “all lives matter” includes us when said. Pregnancy related deaths for non-white women over 30 are nearly fives times the rate of white women. When black people were dying because of heroin in the 60’s or crack in the 80’s, the police were sent in. This millennium’s opioid troubles mostly touching white populations–now it’s time for recovery programs, federal money and understanding.
If you read this piece and all you’re left with is “oh, that’s just awful, I can’t believe those things happened. Why did we never learn about them in our schooling?”, then you’re missing the point. For one, non-white people in America have empirical evidence from history, and present day, that the prevailing thought when it comes to us is that our lives in fact do not matter equally. We have repeatedly been made the proverbial canary in a coal mine for advancements meant primarily to serve white people with barely a passing disquietude for ethics or the suffering of the subjects. Secondly, non-white folks’ experience has shown that public health officials have not always told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Look, I’m not here to cast aspersions on our new vaccines. I’m in as much a hurry for them to get here as many of you are. I just want to give you some historical perspective to help you understand why some of your black neighbors may not join in on the dancing in the streets just yet.