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Racism In Medicine: Part III

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On the issue of the relationship between race, medicine and health care in the U.S., Reverend Jesse Jackson often says, “There is a mean mood in America.” “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons history has to teach.”

To understand the relationship between race, racial inequities and unequal health care, one need only to turn back the clock 400 years. E. F. Blanton, slave ship surgeon wrote in a prestigious medical journal, “The Negro is associated with the concept of a cognitive deficit, weak intelligence, easily dominated. Certain forms of medical and psychiatric illness are so widespread as to seem ‘normal’.” “One sees this as a direct result of poor food, crowded quarters, foul ships, marshy land stagnant drinking water and in recognition of contagion and the need for quarantine.”

The transportation of slaves from Africa to America had profound health effects. It is viewed in medical annals as the most massive epidemiologic catastrophe for Black Africans in world history.

Only the Black Plague of the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and the influenza epidemic of the early twentieth century had comparable historical medical impact. The slave trade transported malaria, dysentery and yellow fever to the New World. Such diseases were rampant amid Africa’s mass of tropical forests and thick walls of vegetation.

Sanitation conditions were horrible aboard slave ships. The conditions encouraged disease outbreaks, inadequate diets, and hysteria. The human cargo was crowded below on shallow decks often nude, shackled and stacked like spoons on shelves. Besides being overcrowded the slaves had to lie and sleep in their own waste.

Overshadowed by the exploding Atlantic slave trade the devastating health effects on Black Africans were downplayed or largely ignored by the European medical community. Current estimates of slave mortality and the number of Africans displaced by slavery run as high as 50 percent and 30 percent in the first year after arrival in the New World. Moreover, the “slave wars,” round-ups and marches from the African interior to the coast inflicted high death tolls. More dense, concentrations of slaves in storage pens, holding ‘castles,’ and ships, elevated the death rate from slavery to at least 50% before they even left Africa. Once in the New World captive slaves were exposed to new diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, smallpox and measles.

For most Africans, the slave experience provided their first contact with the Western medical profession. Based on numerous written accounts the so-called ‘new patient’ category quickly led to the dehumanizing process of Black inferiority. Slaves suffering from diseases, injuries, fights and whippings, were treated by root healers, mystics and midwives. Those deemed “valuable stock,” were often exploited for medical experimentation and demonstration purposes. French physician and scholar, David Brion Davis, cataloged this list of slave traits; physiological peculiarities, dark rough skin, kinky hair, thin eyebrows, broad nostrils, thick lips, pointed white teeth, an offensive odor, inferior intelligence, an oversized penis and great merriment.”

The racial disparities that pervade the American healthcare system today offer a malignant kinship to lessons of history. Despite impressive advancements in treatment and the billions spent on research, the tide of the slave health deficit was not stemmed – instead it has become an inevitable legacy, ensured by post Civil War health system policies and practices. The lessons of history have taught us the dual and unequal health system of 2003 is largely old healthcare policy masquerading as an honest and virtuous slavemaster.

Dr. Levister welcomes reader mail concerning their body but regrets that he is not able to answer individual letters. Your letters will be incorporated into the column as space permits. You may direct your letters to Dr. Levister in care of Black Voice News, P.O. Box 1581, Riverside, CA 92502.

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