8 Horrific Examples of Scientific Racism Against Black People in America
I purchased a book some years back called 'Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.' I had originally heard about it on Democracy Now because the author, Harriet A. Washington was interviewed and described some of what was in her book. I remember putting the book down half way through it, because it was that hard to read! Most of this history is unknown. I share just a few examples here with you today. The list of atrocities grows and grows as the call for reparations becomes louder and louder.
I could honestly include 20 examples of scientific racism, but once again...I have to stop reading this book. Harriet Washington has written a book that will shock and stun you!
Circus Africanus: The Popular Display of Black Bodies at Carnivals
1. P.T. Barnum and the Ghastly Story of Joice Heth. Yes, the same P.T. Barnum who's name is now associated with the circus show he helped create Wringley Bros. Barnum and Bailey. Throughout the 1830's and 1840's, Barnum exhibited many Black people. The most notorious being an elderly woman he kept enslaved name Joice Heth. Barnum ran a scam where he toured the country making white Americans believe Heth was the former caretaker of President George Washington. On top of manufacturing her history and African origin, he falsely claimed she was 161 years old! Part of what made Heth such a lucrative spectacle was her purported decrepid state of health...you see Joice Heth was skeletal. Barnum claimed she weighed only 46 pounds in what is a likely case of forced starvation. She was likely given just enough food to survive and stay alive while Barnum profiteered off of her malnourished body. Both of her legs and one arm were paralyzed, her eyes were completely gone and she was toothless. Given the fact that I highly doubt she pulled her own eyes out or her teeth. One can only imagine that these body parts were violently taken from her at some point in her life. It is also unclear how she became paralyzed.
She was mocked as racist newspapers commented that with her leathery skin and skeletal frame...she looked like a mummy from the very catacombs of Egypt. Heth soon became a medical curiosity as some wanted proof that she was as old as Barnum claimed she was. Barnum knew it was a hoax, but he saw the opportunity to milk it even more. He announced in a newspaper that on her death, Joice Heth would be PUBLICLY dissected and given an autopsy for over 1,500 people to see...who paid. Her death was eagerly awaited and it soon came. How? We'll never know if it was natural or the result of murder. Given her state, she was likely already near death as she was taken by force around the country as a circus freak. Barnum's claim to fame was cemented when he was able to obtain the help of a well-known New York City surgeon to publicly dissect her body post-mortem. The surgeon called Barnum's bluff and said she wasn't anywhere near 161 years old, but likely somewhere in her 80's. After the success of the Joice Heth "attraction," Barnum would continue to profiteer off of Black bodies as he and other entrepreneurs saw how profitable "exotic Black bodies" could be.
2. P.T. Barnum and the Popularization and Fear of "White Negroes." Not only did Barnum profit off of Black bodies. He also profited off of Black people suffering from albinism, vitiligo, genetic mosaicism and other medical conditions that lighten the skin of Black people. Throughout the mid 19th century, around the time after Charles Darwin wrote 'The Origin of Species,' scientists were enamored with looking for the "missing link" between apes and modern man and searched high and low in Africa and other countries with dark-skinned populations to prove this to be true. Many victims of scientific racism and colonialism were brought back to America and displayed as curiosities in cages. Blacks suffering from albinism were used as proof of such a link. Some sick scientists proposed that Blacks were turning White in America because they were becoming more civilized. "White Negroes" were a spectacle that also caused some concern for white supremacists of the era.
White skin was held as the pinnacle of evolutionary advancement, so if Blacks could "turn White," then what does that mean for white people since Whites were the superior Humans and to some the only Humans? Harriet Washington writes in 'Medical Apartheid' that "the justification for slavery and unequal treatment of all kinds evaporated with skin color." Former President Thomas Jefferson was many things, including not only a rapist and pedophile, but also a virulent white supremacist who worked feverishly to create a scientific distinction between White Europeans and "White Negroes." Jefferson didn't just believe Blackness was an external skin color, but a permanent badge of inferiority that resided deeper within the body. The drive to define Blackness vs. Whiteness played a MAJOR role in scientific racism and led to a more surgical approach as a definition based purely on skin color would not suffice given the reality of "White Negroes."
Surgical Experimentation on Black People in the Antebellum Clinic
3. One aspect of scientific racism that has all but when white-washed from American history today is the open desire for Black bodies to fill medical wards, surgical suites, operating theaters, autopsy tables and pathology jars in the Antebellum South and even post-slavery well into the 20th century. There was once a Georgia physician named W.H. Robert who amputated the leg of a 15-year old slave girl without making any attempt whatsoever to treat the relatively minor injury any other way. The surgeon told his students (who were in attendance during the procedure) that they should weigh amputation very differently depending on the amputees race and class. He said that such an extreme measure should be a last resort for wealthy white men, but that amputating the leg of a slave was "a matter of comparatively little importance." He ordered his students not to hesitate to take the limb of a slave and he "backed up" his white supremacist beliefs by claiming the pain felt by the slave girl was negligible, minor in comparison to a White man.
4. Dr. Pray was a newly-minted PhD in November 1846 who's memoirs have survived to this day. He recounted how during his first anatomical dissection he had felt extreme sympathy for the young Black girl he was about to put under his scalpel. He wrote that she was "...despised in life, you are to be made a spectacle and subject of ridicule and obscene jest even in death." Under pressure, he launched a public surgical dissection of the girl's labia in her vaginal area. A year later, the same Dr. Pray laughingly wrote of his antics the day before the procedure when he delighted in making a group of high-class White woman scream in horror by frightening them with "a piece of dead nigar" that he had saved from his dissecting table. Dr. Pray wasn't the only one of his kind. Medical students across the country observed the course of illnesses in black patients who were used as guinea pigs for educational purposes.
Diagnosis: Freedom - When 750,000 Black Americans Were Kept in Concentration Camps During the Civil War
5. As the Union army drove back the Confederacy, it initially took under its control 750,000 black people who had fled various plantations at the start of the Civil War. The U.S. government ordered the Union military to take care of these black people to which the military was reluctant. The military claimed they didn't have the resources needed to properly care for nearly 1 million people who were now essentially refugees. So instead, scores and scores of sick and malnourished Black Americans seeking freedom were herded into concentration camps without adequate nutrition, sanitation, or medical care. There were only ever 138 physicians to care for what turned into 1.1 million freemen who eventually lived in the camps. Many of these doctors expressed hatred and disdain for the Black "animals" they were tasked with helping...some doctors simply refused to take care of them. So obviously the outcome should have been predictable. To the the medical malpractice of the Union army and the doctors they employed, 1 out of 4 freemen died in the camps. Many died of rampant infectious disease, especially tuberculosis. Infant mortality, which was always high for enslaved Blacks, grew greater exponentially in the years the camps were in use.
Eugenics and Genocide: The Dark History of Birth Control and the Forced Sterilization of Black Women
6. Much of what is today called Nazism had its roots in a white supremacist ideology known as Aryanism. Aryanism was the belief in the racial superiority of a mythological, Nordic race of white "supermen," and eugenics was the scientifically racist method used to prove this white supremacist agenda. What many will not tell you about today is the massive influence American eugenics had on German eugenics and effectively Nazism. However the racism of eugenics can best be shown through a woman by the name of Margaret Sanger who exploited black stereotypes in order to reduce the fertility of black Americans. The insidiousness of eugenics has been the ease by which people like Sanger were able to manipulate black people into helping her push her agenda. Her lasting legacy has been the creation of the Birth Control pill, a pill firmly rooted in the concept of Black population control. There was a brief period of time in the 1960's and early '70's when birth control was equated with genocide in the Black community. Even in the early 1970's the American Journal of Public Health surveyed Blacks and discovered that some 40% viewed birth control as an attempt at sterilization and genocide. The United Nations, in Article D of Resolution 260 even states that "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group" is a crime of genocide. However Black women, for the most part, accepted and welcomed this new contraceptive choice and the rest is really history. It's hard to call something genocide when the group targeted by said genocide is a willing participant in what's going on.
7. Force surgical sterilizations have a dark history in America. When Germans began their eugenic sterilization initiative in 1934, 17 U.S. states were already well underway performing their own sterilizations. By 1941, as Hitler was well on his way to perfecting the eugenic 'Final Solution,' some 70,000 - 100,000 Americans had already been sterilized...many of them being black Americans (but not all). However in the early 1970's, the SPLC filed a class-action lawsuit to end the use of federal funds for involuntary sterilizations, they discovered that 100,000 - 150,000 woman had been sterilized using federal funds...half of these women were Black! Harriet Washington writes that "in the South, rendering Black women infertile without their knowledge during surgery was so common that the procedure was called a "Mississippi appendectomy." This is the procedure that well known Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was subjected to without her knowledge or consent.
Welfare was used as a justification for sterilization for many decades as well...forcing women to choose between either receiving government aid or child birth. Harriet Washington writes how she learned from old case files from the 1960's and 1970's that social workers conducted frequent night-raids on the homes of welfare recipients . If a man was discovered in the home, then the family's aid could be cut off unless the woman agreed to be sterilized, guaranteeing there would be no additional children for the state to support.
Caged Subjects: Research on Black Prisoners
8. A book was released in 1998 that ties very much into topics such as America's prison system that are talked about heavily today. The book was called 'Acres of Skin' and detailed the painful and yes, diabolical journey a man named Jesse Williams went through while imprisoned for 40 years in the Holmesburg Prison system. It was written by Allen Hornblum and exposes years of unethical experimentation on inmates between 1950-1970. He details how Williams was burned by radiation and sulfuric acid, how he was forced to immerse his arms in chemicals that tanned his skin like leather, how physicians and technicians rubbed acid into his scotum until the skin fell away...all for $3/session.
Harriet Washington details how testing for Phase 1 trials of new drugs were often tested first on inmates due to the higher risk of Phase 1 drugs with potential deadly side effects. Drugs that were deemed to be "too toxic" and failed in to make it past Phase 2 were often tested on inmates.