GRAD 219 Course – The Black Experience in American Medicine – Week 3

This is a guest post by Nebat Ali, PhD Candidate, UCSF Biomedical Sciences (BMS) Program

One of the final pieces we read as part of this course was an article by Boyd et al titled “On Racism: A New Standard For Publishing On Racial Health Inequities”. This article encompasses many of the concepts we discussed in class and exemplifies how racism continues to be maintained in our medical and scientific spaces. As the article states, racism is “America’s earliest tradition” and was used as the foundation for all aspects of American society.

As someone who grew up in the Bay Area, there seems to be the misconception that liberal parts of our country are somehow free of these frameworks. This is far from being true, and one can quickly come to this realization by taking a brief look into the history of our institutions.

Fifty years ago, Black employees at UCSF initiated the formation of the Black Caucus- the first affinity-based group established in the UC-system- in order to protest the racist policies and mistreatment they faced at UCSF. Members of the Black Caucus coined The Medical Center at Parnassus “The Plantation on the Hill” due to the discriminatory practices they faced in the workplace (reference linked below). As a united voice the Black Caucus demanded for the improvement of their working conditions and for their fair treatment. In addition, they also fought strongly to advocate for the recruitment and retention of Black students at UCSF. When I casually walk through the halls of my building or sit and have lunch in the cafeteria, I’m often reminded that only fifty years ago Black and Brown UCSF employees didn’t have the right to freely navigate through campus the way that I do. The strikes and protests organized by the Black Caucus were transformative, and while their impacts are still felt today there is still a long road ahead in order to dismantle the systems of oppression these institutions were built on. Within our own communities in San Francisco, we are witnessing and experiencing some of the most alarming disparities in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

I have a vivid memory of a discussion that took place in a microbiology course I was taking early in the pandemic that revolved around genetic predispositions to severe COVID-19 infections. It was even more troubling to see subsequent studies that additionally failed to assert the contributions of racism in the prevention, detection, and treatment of COVID-19 infection. As we discussed through some of our previous readings, studies like these result in both the erasure of systemic racism’s impact on health as well as the large numbers of Black scholars who specialize in this area of research. Some of the recommendations provided by the Boyd et al article will be critical in improving the practices in scientific research that ultimately contribute to this. In the case of the pandemic, I always find myself wondering how beneficial NIH funds could have been if they were redirected to provide care to highly impacted Black and Brown communities instead of being used to do poor research and/or research that is only tangentially related to the virus. In order to begin repairing the damage that’s been done, it will additionally be important to consider how federal funds are allocated to agencies like the NIH and CDC. Improper allocation of funds to these agencies can sequester money away from developing sustainable care programs in underserved communities and subsequently direct them to research practices that only reinforce racism in science and medicine.

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