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Why the Long History of Institutional Racism Matters

TuIs the lack of grand jury indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner really a surprise? If we take a look at the history of structural racism imbedded in not just the US law enforcement system but also the treatment of Black Americans by our medical institutions; maybe not so much.

Black Americans have a long history of mistrusting the police. Hyper policing and unjustified lethal force from the police traces back to slavery. Slave patrols and night watchers were inspired by fears that slaves would escape and revolt against plantation owners and overseers. Codes and guidelines that prohibited the behaviors of slaves and “free” Black people, outlined in the Fugitive Slave Laws encouraged the capture and detention of slaves and those alleged to be slaves.

When slavery ended in 1865 after the Civil War, the desire to criminalize and monitor the activity of Black Americans remained. Vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, recreated the brutality and hyper policing of the slave patrols and Night Watchers. Black Americans perceived as violating Jim Crow laws were subjected to intimidation, physical assault, and – frequently – death. Rarely were the White offenders brought to justice because the police – a state sanctioned entity – held the same beliefs as the perpetrators: the belief that Black people were unequal American citizens. Ideas of Black people being innately and culturally violent gave reason for the rise to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Jim Crow laws, and excessive monitoring of Black people.

The brutality of the police was put on display in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Television stations broadcasted local police units using fire hoses and dogs on Black Americans. By this point, the tide was turning. These violent images helped garner government support for the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite such a monumental legislation, Black people continued to be the target of abuse. This extended to the 1980s and 1990s with the War on Drugs, in which police officers began to have a daily presence in poor, Black neighborhoods. Political candidates had sparring matches on who was the toughest on crime. The height of such rhetoric matched the growing number of private prisons, passage of harsh drug laws, and the endorsement of “stop and frisk” policies.

Concurrently during the era of slave patrols and Night Watchers, slaves were treated as experimental objects. The relationship between Black people and medical institutions has been rife with deceit and exploitation. The medical establishment has a similar history, in which the bodies of Black people were viewed as immaterial and treated inhumanely for the purposes of medical advancement. Graves were dug up and the bodies of slaves were used as training grounds for medical students. One of the most notorious doctors exploiting Black people in medical experimentation was a plantation doctor, James Marion Sims. Sims performed vaginal surgery on Black women without using available anesthesia, without consent, and without the mercy and accommodations he afforded to White women. In more recent years, cancerous cells were taken from a Black woman, without her consent, that served and advanced biomedical research for decades.

The foundation of these experiments laid in theories of scientific racism. Many people, both inside and outside of the medical community, from the days of slavery to after its abolishment viewed Black people as physically inferior. These same ideas gave rationale for the hyper policing and criminalization of Black people. Medical doctors put forth notions that Black people had the smaller skulls, and therefore, the smaller brains than Whites.

In addition, it was assumed that Black people had higher pain tolerance, which gave reason to administer no or less anesthesia. This notion has persisted to current times. Healthcare workers of all races presume Black people experience less physical pain. This leads to undertreating pain conditions. Furthermore, this notion allows for police brutality, as people may see the violence done by police as less injurious to Black people. The most well-known medical abuse of Black people occurred in recent times – the Tuskegee Experiment, in which medical treatment was withheld, long after a cure was discovered, simply to satisfy the curiosities of medical researchers. Similar to instances of police brutality, medical doctors and researchers were infrequently held accountable for their unethical actions.

With the long histories of these two prominent institutions in regard to Black people, it is no mystery as to why Black people express less confidence in the police and more mistrust healthcare professionals. Mistrust in both institutions makes Black people apprehensive to seek help from either entity. Experiencing police brutality, either directly or indirectly (witnessing it or hearing about it from family/friend), is traumatic and can have a lasting impact on one’s emotional well-being. Yet, Black people are less likely to seek health care.  It is well-documented that lack of healthcare access and poverty drive this disparity. However, the legacy of and the experiences of racism and discrimination from healthcare providers must be acknowledged as well.

The lack of judicial action in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has pushed the discussion of police brutality to the top of news.  People around the nation have come together to protest.  The history of state sanctioned racism against blacks cannot be dismissed.  It cannot be seen as something of the past, when it is reincarnated in a different form in the present. The injustice between Black people and the police and medical institutions must be acknowledged. Tangible policies that do not turn a blind eye to the racism inherent in these institutions must be enacted. Moreover, meaningful and substantial consequences must be designed not to simply placate the injured, but to affirm the equality and value of the lives of all Black Americans.

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About Georica Gholson

Georica Gholson, Ph.D. completed her Ph.D at Howard University in Clinical Psychology. Connect with Georica on twitter.  Learn more about Georica here.

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