GRAD 219 Course – The Black Experience in American Medicine – Week 2

This is a guest post by Cambria Chou-Freed, Ph.D. Candidate, UCSF Biomedical Sciences (BMS) Program

Last week in class, we discussed the topic of reparations for the harms enacted by the U.S. government and medical system on people of color, specifically Black Americans affected by the U.S. syphilis experiment at Tuskegee and the Latinx/Indigenous communities affected by the U.S. experiment in Guatemala. My interest in reparations is bolstered by my heritage, my Jewish American ancestors who immigrated from the former Soviet Union prior to World War II. The Jewish community is one of the few communities throughout history that has received reparation payments for affected individuals (link: https://www.vox.com/2014/5/23/5741352/six-times-victims-have-received-reparations-including-four-in-the-us). Since 2012, Germany is estimated to have paid $89 million in reparation payments for the Holocaust—to countries such as Israel, but also to individuals, including many Jewish Americans (link: http://www.claimscon.org/about/history/). Though my family did not directly receive those reparation payments, they mean a lot to me, given that some of my ancestors narrowly escaped and what others who I never got to know about didn’t.

Many have proposed that Germany’s reparation payments could serve as a model, or at least a precedent, to support the case for U.S. reparations to Black Americans for slavery, including Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Case for Reparations.” The U.S. syphilis experiment at Tuskegee represents only a tiny fraction of the legacy of slavery and the crimes that the U.S. has committed against Black people. Though the U.S. government has “paid reparations” through court settlements for the Tuskegee experiment, it’s clear that much more needs to be done. I can’t say that Germany has offered a perfect model or that we should be copying their methods, but it proves to me that large-scale reparations on behalf of a government can be made. Furthermore, it provides an example of payments made not only to a country’s own citizens, but also to foreign citizens. This would be the case for what the U.S. owes to the citizens of Guatemala affected by the U.S. Public Health Service experiment there. Reparations, of course means much more than monetary payments, and it means different things to different people, but the conversation has to start somewhere.

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