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UCI Humanities Hosts Intersecting Realities: Health, Race and the Ongoing Legacies Of Slavery and Jim Crow

The UCI Humanities Center hosted Intersecting Realities: Health, Race and the Ongoing Legacies Of Slavery and Jim Crow, an event that is part of UCI’s 1619 Project series, on Oct. 15. The initiative is co-sponsored by UCI Illuminations, UCI Black Thriving Initiative, the School of Humanities, the Claire Trevor School of The Arts and Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times magazine journalist and the lead writer for the 1619 project.

The 1619 project was published in 2019 by the New York Times in an effort to retell the history of the U.S. beginning with the arrival of enslaved Africans. The project includes podcasts, pictures, essays and photos which measure the impact of slavery on the healthcare system, economy, racial segregation of neighborhoods, popular music and visual representations. 

The purpose of the event was to foster a conversation about health as it pertains to the Black community and how health disparities that originated from slavery and Jim Crow are still occurring today.

The panelists included sociology professor Sabrina Strings, professor of Department of Pediatrics and School of Medicine and LEAD-ABC Co-Director Dr. Candice Taylor Lucas, and law professor and Founding Director of the Center of Biotechnology and Global Health Policy Michele Goodwin.

Strings discussed how clinical trials lack racial diversity.

“Clinical research is overwhelmingly white. Clinical trials have far too little racial and ethnic diversity. And as a result the findings they are delivering are not in any way representative,” Strings said.

In addition, Strings stated that clinical research is destructive when it is catered to one specific group.

“In the U.S., approximately 40% of all of the people in the country are people of color but as few as 10% of the people who are involved in clinical trials are people of color … we are using data overwhelmingly from white populations and attempting to extrapolate to all of the U.S. various guidelines for what is normal … what we are seeing is not what is normal but what is normative based on European individuals,” Strings said. 

Strings highlighted the juxtaposition of the history of medical research and clinical trials to what is currently happening now.

“Historically, as a result of slavery Black people’s bodies were overused for medical research that was to benefit white populations. Today, Black people are being excluded from medical research that is also to benefit white populations,” Strings said.

Taylor discussed how the infant mortality rate of Black babies is rising today compared to the mortality rate during slavery. 

“[T]he disparity between Black and white infant deaths today is actually greater than it was under antellbum slavery. Demographers are estimating [in] 1850 enslaved infants died before one year of age at a rate of 1.6 times higher than that of white infants and in LA County [today] its [Black infants are] three times,” Taylor said.

Taylor also talked about the shortage of Black physicians as another contributing factor to the medical neglect that Black people go through and reiterates the cause of the shortage and  neglect being institutionalized racism which has plagued the Black community for centuries.

“The fact that Black people did not have access to become a physician — there were barriers, the same Jim Cow barriers, that applied to health systems and education,” Taylor said.

Goodwin discussed the history of Dr. Marion Sims and how enslaved Black women were tortured for his medical research, in order to set the tone for current circumstances of mistreatment of Black women in the healthcare system.

“Dr. Marion Sims, who’s considered the father of gynecology, spoke about what he would do to the enslaved Black women that he kept in a shed at the back of his house. How he would get an epiphany in the middle of the night and wake them up and begin lacerating into their bodies, cutting into their uteruses, stitching doing all of this without providing them any aid of anesthesia,” Goodwin said.

Taylor spoke to the importance of rectifying the Black physician shortage and representation in the medical field.

“Health is not determined in a small brief clinical encounter. There are social determinants of health, biases, racism, all of this influences health and in partnering diverse ways and broad ways and in optimizing [Black] healthcare providers including midwives and nurses. Including health advocates, that’s how we’ll be able to make a greater change,” Taylor said.

Autumn Martin is a Contributing Writer. She can be reached at autumnjm@uci.edu.