Dr. Fauci’s Acknowledgement of Black Folks was Cute, But He Left Out the Part About Racism

Apr 8, 2020 | BM4F Spotlights, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 1 comment

Today Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease (NIAID) at the National Institute of Health (NIH) made some interesting statements about the long history of “health disparities” in the African American community but, that is not the full story at all. Yes, his remarks (on the surface level) appear to be sincere, empathetic and to some, laudable, but we must be careful not to jump the gun to applaud incomplete statements and uncited rhetoric. The Tuskegee Experiments, Environmental Racism and Social Determinants of Health are just a few health indicators within a litany of disenfranchisement grounded in white supremacy.

The Tuskegee Experiments & The Black Mistrust of Medical Professionals

The language Dr. Fauci used to describe the state of Black Health is very dangerous. His blanketed statements regarding African Americans’ predisposed conditions such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes can be used to further exacerbate stereotypes and myths surrounding Black folks’ behavior and culture. Without surrounding these statements with appropriate historical context, these thoughts can easily be used to further weaponize African Americans. Let’s take a look at the Tuskegee Experiments, shall we? On July 25, 1972, the public learned that, over the course of the previous 40 years, a government medical experiment  conducted in the Tuskegee, AL area, had allowed hundreds of African-American men with syphilis to go untreated so that scientists could study the effects of the disease.

Stanford scholars and Bridge Clinical Research team up to uncover the causes of health disparities between white and black men. Motivated by historical research on the role of Tuskegee shaping health behaviors, Stanford Professor of Medicine Marcella Alsan along with Oakland-based researcher Dr. Owen Garrick, started the Oakland Health Disparities Pilot Project to study how to improve preventative care among black men.

On July 25, 1972, the public learned that, over the course of the previous 40 years, a government medical experiment conducted in the Tuskegee, Ala., area had allowed hundreds of African-American men with syphilis to go untreated so that scientists could study the effects of the disease. [1]

Approximately 600 Black Men were “selected” to participate in what was called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”. One of the ways the men were lured into the study was by medical physicians communicating that they had “bad blood”. About 399 of the 600 men had syphilis; however, while the drug penicillin was approved by the US Public Health Service in 1945 to properly treat the disease, the experiment lasted over 30 years where the men were never treated. The rationale for such flagrant inhumanity was supposedly for betterment of medical research. Six hundred African-American men were chosen for the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” launched during the Great Depression. They were told they had “bad blood,” and many underwent painful spinal taps and other medical procedures. Of those 600 men, 399 had syphilis. Even after the U.S. Public Health Service in 1945 approved penicillin to treat the disease, the study that began in 1932 would continue until 1972 without the men being treated – all in the name of medical research. [2]

How could it be, that such a life altering experience not be observed when examining the underlying issues of the African American health crisis? If anything, this uptick in COVID-19 media coverage and release of race specific data evokes additional fear as the remnants of experiences like the Tuskegee Experiment still haunt us. For example, Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of ICU services at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, and Camille Locht, research director for France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research engaged in public dialogue regarding the need to test out COVID-19 treatments in Africa.[3] Sound familiar? It is critical that an individual such as Dr. Fauci with an enormous platform of listeners and followers communicates from a holistic and comprehensive approach regarding the state of African American health.

Environmental Racism

At what point are politicians and government officials going to address the pink, racist elephant in the room? Words such as “disparities” and “disproportionate” are triggering to many Black people because they represent the safe words White America uses as a barrier to confronting their battle with racism.

Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. America is segregated and so is pollution. Race and class still matter and map closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.  Today, zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual’s health and well-being.  Individuals who physically live on the “wrong side of the tracks” are subjected to elevated environmental health threats and more than their fair share of preventable diseases. Still, too many people and communities have the “wrong complexion for protection.” Reducing environmental, health, economic and racial disparities is a major priority of the Environmental Justice Movement. [4] 

Dr. Robert Bullard is the “Father of Environmental Justice” and living black history of an environmental justice expert that can clearly articulate the impacts of environmental racism and Black health inequity through his decades of activism and actual lived experiences growing up and living in majority black communities served as the dumping ground of white and affluent America. For example, currently New Orleans, LA is among many cities with large Black populations that is being significantly impacted by COVID-19. But COVID-19 is not to blame for a long-standing history of environmental racism in NOLA. Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, there is an approximate 85-mile stretch inundated with more than 150 plants and refineries–once known as “Cancer Alley” and currently “Death Alley”. [5]

Chemical plants and factories line the roads and suburbs of the area known as ‘Cancer Alley.’ (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

“You put poison in the land, water and in the air, the result is sickness and death. The planned killing of any group is genocide,”

Pat Bryant, the son of sharecroppers and a resident of New Orleans [5]

The Flint Water Crisis is another example of local, state (and implication of federal) government disqualifying the humanity of a majority African American city. There have been over 5 years since the crisis emerged, and still not all lead pipes have been replaced. It is also unclear if residents have water fixtures that may still be leaching lead. Lead is a neurotoxin and causes issues such as: challenges with cognitive development in infants and children, miscarriages, kidney and central nervous system damage, high blood pressure, mental health disorders, joint and muscle pain, seizures and ultimately death depending on the severity of exposure. [6] The African American residents of Flint do not experience health challenges just from being “predisposed”; the Flint Water Crisis was intentional and an undeniable act of genocide. These types of defining moments in history must be included in the narrative surrounding Black Health.

Social Determinants of Health

Dr. Fauci missed a big opportunity to educate the general public about the social determinants of health. Social determinants of health support the necessary work to truly reach health equity. The determinants include: socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, and social support networks, as well as access to health care. The concept of the social determinants of health actually is an elaborate tapestry that intertwines both human and civil rights. When any aspect of these human and civil rights are not fully accessible, quality of health is compromised.

While the objective is not to portray Dr. Fauci as a “bad guy”, it is our duty as Black activists, politicians, clergyman, scholars, doctors, nurses, lawyers, scientists, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers–the entire Black Family must be in control of OUR narrative and we must ensure that our full story is told. Additionally, it is apropos to hold our public leaders accountable for the manner in which they speak to (never for…only Black people should be speaking for Black people) and about Black people.

“[The fact that] Fauci could speak to the devastating effect this pandemic is having on the black community without paying ANY lip service to the real factors at play is nothing short of this administration pulling the wool over our eyes. The black community was just thrown a gristly bone, y’all.”

Michelle Mabson, Chief Advocacy Officer, Black Millennials 4 Flint

References

1. Waxman, O. (2017). How the Public Learned About the Infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Time Magazine.

2. Duff-Brown, B. (2017). Stanford researchers explore legacy of Tuskegee syphilis study today.

3. Busari, S. & Wojazer, B. (2020) French doctors’ proposal to test Covid-19 treatment in Africa slammed as ‘colonial mentality’

4. Bullard, R. (2018) Dr. Robert Bullard: Father of Environmental Justice.

5. Reyna, L. (2020) Environmental Racism Is Killing Black Communities In Louisiana. Talk Poverty.

6. Mayo Clinic (2019) Lead Poisoning.

1 Comment

  1. Tr Mc

    “…the study that began in 1932 would continue until 1972 without the men being treated – all in the name of medical research.”

    https://www.oar.nih.gov/about/fauci

    “In 1968, Dr. Fauci came to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a clinical associate in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation (LCI) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)” a place that hosts “an extensive research portfolio of basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose, and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases…”

    He was there!! Fauci was effing THERE!

    Reply

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