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

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This is a guest post by Jackie Roger, Ph.D. Candidate, UCSF Program in Bioinformatics (BI)

During our class on 5/21, we learned about the term “biopolitics”. After our discussion in class, I wanted to learn more about it and ended up doing some additional reading. Biopolitics, conceptualized by Michel Foucault, is the intersection of life and politics. In practice, it is the governance and control of human life. Many of the topics that we have covered in class can be contextualized within biopolitics.

On 5/17 we talked about forced sterilizations in California prisons. This was a mechanism for controlling who could and could not procreate, and was deeply rooted in white supremacist ideologies. On 5/24 we discussed the hysteria in the 1980s about the “crack baby epidemic” that never ended up happening and had no reasonable scientific basis. There was widespread panic about the possibility of babies born with physical and cognitive disabilities, but little concern about the lack of resources and support for women with substance use disorders. In both of these examples, the focus was on the child-bearing potential of women, and not on the personhood of women. Both forced sterilizations and public hysteria were used to police who should be having children.

On 5/19 we reviewed the Tuskegee syphilis study, and on 5/26 we drew parallels between the racial disparities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the ongoing COVID pandemic. In all three of these examples, the medical system prioritized white lives over black lives. There was significant investment in caring for white patients, while black patients were often neglected or mistreated.