A trio of Wayne State University School of Medicine physicians is calling upon the medical and scientific communities to confront and end a legacy of scientific racism in research, medical education, clinical practice and health policies by “de-pathologizing and humanizing” American Black bodies.
In “Modern Day Drapetomania: Calling Out Scientific Racism,” published in the Journal of General Medicine, the authors – Ijeoma Nnodim Opara, M.D., FAAP, assistant professor of Internal Medicine-Pediatrics; Latonya Riddle-Jones, M.D., M.P.H. assistant professor of Internal Medicine-Pediatrics; and Nakia Allen, M.D., FAAP, clinical associate professor of Pediatrics – note that racism in medicine has “deep historical roots in white supremacy and anti-Blackness, particularly the pathologizing of Black bodies through pseudoscientific claims of the biological significance of the sociopolitical construct that is ‘race,’ which is often incorrectly conflated with ‘genetic ancestry.’”
Those roots, they write, have developed branches that continue to reach into medical science and medicine to this day, particularly in the ways science frames racial health disparities as a result of biological differences among racial categories.
“Racism, not race, is the vector of disease and health disparities. Racist policies, such as redlining and the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on crime,’ inform systems of housing, education, criminal justice, health and the economy, and determine a community’s exposure to the social and environmental factors that drive health disparities through direct effects, chronic toxic stress and epigenetic mechanisms,” the authors said. “This is the contemporary version of pathologizing Blackness and normal responses to chronic intergenerational trauma, oppression and exploitation. It reinforces the bogus theory of supposed Black inferiority. It is the modern Drapetomania.”
Now recognized as pseudoscience nonsense, Drapetomania was first concocted by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851 to pathologize runaway enslaved Blacks. He claimed that enslaved Blacks had inherently smaller brains and blood vessels that accounted for “indolence” and “barbarism.” His prescribed “cure” and prophylactic treatment for the faux condition was “whipping the devil out of them.”
The nonsensical condition remained in some medical texts into the early 1900s, and was used – along with other false claims – to support racist perceptions and attitudes toward Black Americans.
Some of those perceptions continue in medicine, the authors write, despite the fact that in 2003 the Human Genome Project showed race has no genetic basis and human beings are 99.9% identical genetically.
“The belief that differences in disease outcomes are due to genetic differences between racialized groups still plagues contemporary medicine and science, and unfortunately continues to be funded, published, taught and practiced,” they state. “The use of race to measure human biological differences stubbornly persists and, consequently, these structures and systems are absolved of responsibility, reinforced and perpetuated.”
To eliminate scientific racism, they call for identifying and excising it from clinical algorithms and medical decision-making equations; expunging it from the publication process through anti-racist peer review and editorship; transforming medical and scientific education from undergraduate studies through faculty development; and advocacy among academic partnerships with patients, marginalized communities and policymakers that prioritize the social and structural determinants of health to positively impact health outcomes.
“By so doing and in the spirit of professional humility, we can dismantle scientific racism in the norms, policies, processes and practices of our current research, clinical practice, public health and medical education systems,” the physicians wrote. “Then, we can demonstrate our trustworthiness and build equitable partnerships with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities as we provide quality and humanizing care to all members of the human family.”