If you finished reading in the links from yesterday’s blog post (here for reference: https://suntexllc.com/when-was-the-very-1st-black-history-month/), or follow along with White House updates, you already know that this year’s theme for Black History Month is Health and Wellness.
This is a highly significant topic considering the great disparities faced by African Americans in the field of healthcare. From higher rates of high-blood pressure, diabetes, to higher maternal mortality rates for Black Americans – and everything in between – there is a lot that still needs to be addressed in Black Health and Wellness (hypertension rates in the US: https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/facts.htm#:~:text=Nearly%20half%20of%20adults%20in,are%20taking%20medication%20for%20hypertension; diabetes rates in the US: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf; maternal mortality rates in the US: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/maternal-mortality-2021/maternal-mortality-2021.htm#Fig1).
To get some historical context on why this problem exists today, I turn to the Journal of the National Medical Association, in their article titled, “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/). Portions of this text are grim, and several of the same problems that existed over three centuries ago still exist today – namely access to equitable and affordable healthcare – which we’ll explore in more detail within this post. In just the abstract of the article, we find that:
“Many famous doctors, philosophers, and scientists of each historical era were involved in creating and perpetuating racial inferiority mythology and stereotypes. Such theories were routinely taught in U.S. medical schools in the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries. The conceptualization of race moved from the biological to the sociological sphere with the march of science.
The atmosphere created by racial inferiority theories and stereotypes, 246 years of black chattel slavery, along with biased educational processes, almost inevitably led to medical and scientific abuse, unethical experimentation, and overutilization of African-Americans as subjects for teaching and training purposes” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/).
However the full text of this article paints an even broader picture of the problems at hand, read on, here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/pdf/jnma00341-0013.pdf. The full story is certainly a depressing tale, since the idea of White superiority pre-dates even the founding of the United States in 1776, with the ancient Greeks and Romans first coining the idea – something I was unaware of before, and also something that would make disparaging these ideas that much harder.
Thus, when it came to healthcare in earlier centuries, “Health policy effects of such hierarchical ranking by physicians and natural scientists was evidenced by the fact that slaves began receiving scant and/or sub-optimal medical treatment by lesser trained slave assistant doctors during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.” (Page 175, “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey,” by W. M. Byrd and L. A. Clayton).
It wasn’t until the 1830’s that James McCune became the first African American to earn a medical degree from the University of Glasgow, long after this theory of race superiority had infected the medical community (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/james-mccune-smith-america-first-black-physician-180977110/).
Even though others would shortly follow in his footsteps, it would be over a century later when African Americans even started to hold basic human rights in the US, much less adequate and vast access to medical coverage. As you might expect,
“With a few notable exceptions such as James McCune Smith (1811-1865), an 1837 graduate of the University of Glasgow medical school; John Sweat Rock (1825-1866), an 1852 American Medical College of Philadelphia graduate; and Martin Robison Delany (1812-1885), Daniel Laing, and Isaac H. Snowden, who attended Harvard University medical school in 1850, black exclusion from the medical profession was a given.”
Reference: Page 195, “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey,” by W. M. Byrd and L. A. Clayton.
If you’re looking for good news, beyond of course the Black medical pioneers that were just mentioned, thankfully in recent years, healthcare inclusion within the Black community in the US has improved. According to tcf.org:
“The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped to ensure health care coverage for millions of Americans. The uninsured rate among African Americans declined after the law was implemented: of the more than 20 million people who have gained coverage under the ACA, 2.8 million of them are African-American.”
Link here: (https://tcf.org/content/report/racism-inequality-health-care-african-americans/). However bear in mind not to celebrate this statistic too soon, as the article then goes on to say, “this population is still more likely to be uninsured than white Americans: as of 2018, the uninsured rate among African Americans was 9.7 percent, while it was just 5.4 percent among whites,” demonstrating that there is still a significant gap in healthcare coverage to be tackled.
It’s easy to see that Black people all over the globe have faced enormous disadvantages in terms of access to critical healthcare, and while the gap is starting to decrease, we still have a long way to go.
Thanks to innumerable efforts from abolitionists and those that fought for the modern civil rights movement, not to mention more inclusive healthcare coverage policies from the first Black president of the United States, the gap in access to healthcare has decreased over time. My hope is that our children’s generation will be knowledgeable about the past, and fervent in their effort to correct these wrongs in our collective future.
This blog post in no ways covers the full spectrum of healthcare and race in the United States and abroad, so to learn more, please feel free to check out this list of books on the subject from the ASALH Program Planning Committee: https://www.canva.com/design/DAE0pIvaZ70/jxZ-oLxah7BMIksaeZpunQ/view?website#1.