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Medical Apartheid: Teaching the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

By Gretchen Kraig-Turner


Home > Archives > Volume 31 No.2 - Winter 2016-17

By Gretchen Kraig-TurnerAdd to Cart Purchase a PDF of this article

Chicago Light Brigade demonstrators protesting lead contamination outside Gale Elementary, June 2014. Photo by Kelly Hayes.

When I think of Black Lives Matter, what comes to mind first is police brutality and the resulting lost lives of young men and women in recent times. But as a science teacher, I know that racism in the United States also has roots that extend deep into the history of medical research.

Medical apartheid, the systematic oppression and exclusion of African Americans in our healthcare systems, has existed since the time of slavery and continues today in medical offices and research universities. What care people receive, what diseases are studied, and who is included in research groups are still delineated by race.
 The term medical apartheid is explained in Harriet Washington’s 2007 work, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Washington documents how “diverse forms of racial discrimination have shaped both the relationship between white physicians and black patients and the attitude of the latter towards modern medicine in general.”

Medical apartheid is a reality that many of my students and their families face. I teach in the only predominantly African American high school in Oregon. Being talked down to by doctors is a common experience, as is leaving the doctor’s office without receiving adequate care. One of my students told us that her uncle’s treatment for a heart condition was so substandard, her family sued the hospital for discrimination. Critically examining the history of medical research is a way to bring the experiences of my students and their families into the classroom, and a way to connect our study of bioethics to the often hidden history of African American men and women who fought for their dignity and rights against a medical system that treated them like lab rats.



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