Racism in STEM Fields/the Healthcare Industry
an article by Tia Nguyen
Dear Asian Youth,
As kids, we dreamt about being doctors when we used toy stethoscopes, dreamt about being scientists when we mixed random substances together, and dreamt about being engineers when we built Lego sets. Our imagination and curiosity got the best of us, questioning how the world worked around us, and attempting to come up with out-of-the-box answers, which would later pertain to our studies in STEM. One of the most popular reasons why people pursue a STEM degree is its objectivity. However, applications in a career, such as the healthcare industry, often arise moral and ethical quandaries. The classic example of a moral and ethical quandary is deciding who should be prioritized on the organ donor list, while the most overlooked, yet prominent examples involve racism and racial bias. It is expected that people who specialize in medicine and biology should not be racist. After all, as scientists, it should be a no-brainer that every human is made up of the same chemical composition and functions the same way. However, racism in STEM industries persists, endangering the lives of many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).
In many past studies, Black people have been used as subjects without proper compensation or knowledge of the ongoing studies. For example, the 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment involved six hundred Black, male sharecroppers who were promised free healthcare by the Public Health Service in collaboration with Tuskegee University. 399 of those men had syphilis and were never notified of the disease - one that is contagious and deadly when left untreated. However, they were told they were treated for “bad blood,” given ineffective methods, and prevented from utilizing syphilis treatment programs in their communities. By 1947, the establishment of penicillin as the standard treatment for the disease caused the study to lose funding. However, the study continued to actively examine untreated syphilis. The experiment did not terminate until it was leaked to the press, but by then, twenty-eight men had died, forty wives had contracted the disease, and nineteen children were born with it. It is no coincidence that all participants were Black, impoverished, and illiterate. These scientists clearly saw their lives as disposable and treated them as lab rats. Because of this unethical study, Black patients now have less trust in the medical system than their white counterparts. Studies conducted by Stanford Medical School and the University of Tennessee found that after public revelation of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the life expectancy of Black men over forty-five reduced by a year. The reason for this is that those of a similar demographic to the participants developed more distrust in doctors. Thus, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment scarred generations of Black people from seeking proper medical help. Racism in STEM clearly has larger implications of damage than those directly affected, and continues to hinder these demographics from receiving proper diagnosis and treatment.
Another example of unethical studies is when parents were misled to believe they were signing up for a free child-care program at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s. Blood samples of 7,000 young boys–95% of which were Black–were checked to determine whether they had an extra Y chromosome. This was done to investigate the conjecture that boys with XYY are more likely to be criminals. The children’s blood results were given to courts to use as they pleased, further contributing to systemic racism, as the courts justified their discrimination. Black people are more likely to be disproportionately affected by prison experimental abuse due to the high Black incarceration rates.
Pseudoscience, such as the previous example, directly correlates to white supremacy. The origin stems from social darwinism, where Darwin’s natural selection theory about the survival of the fittest was implemented into societal issues. As a result, scientists justified experimenting on African slaves, viewing Black people as inferior. Even hundreds of years later, Hitler favored eradicating everyone who did not fit the Aryan race, allowing his scientists to conduct inhumane tests on those kept in the internment camps. Thus, science has been manipulated to support racial agendas.
This instance is not the only one of Johns Hopkins taking advantage of the Black community. Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, was treated for cervical cancer at the university in 1951, where a sample of her cancer cells were taken during a biopsy and sent to Dr. Gey, a cell biologist at the Johns Hopkins hospital. Unlike the other cells Dr. Gey had retrieved, Mrs. Lacks’s cells doubled instead of dying. Eventually named HeLa cells, they have been continuously used for cancer cell, virus, and drug research due to their unique life span. Overall, these cells have helped the progression of scientific research immensely. Henceforth, the cells have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars profit for the researchers. However, her family still has not received any compensation from the university, and was unaware of its phenomenon until 1975. Ted Slavin, a white man, had an abundance of antibodies for Hepatitis B that he was able to sell and create a
business out of collecting blood from others like him. It is evident why Ted Slavin did not have this valuable information hidden from him and was able to profit off of his cells, while the Lack family has yet to see compensation for Henrietta’s contribution to science.
In yet another instance of medical research abuse: in 1950s Puerto Rico, women unknowingly signed up for the largest scale human trial of birth control, without knowledge or consent of harmful side effects. Three women were found dead, but their deaths were not reported and autopsies were not performed, despite strong circumstantial evidence linking the two. Racial biases within scientific research reveal ethical violations that have yet to be dealt with.
Medical racism kills. I have seen social media posts of nurses saying they cannot ignore “I can’t breathe” or people comparing that doctors can lose their licenses due to malpractice, while police still have their jobs after abusing their power. However, the healthcare industry is more complicit in racial death without receiving punishment than most realize. An example is of a live video of Jessica Love Burnside, a Black woman, who exposed nurses finally assisting her son as he goes into cardiac arrest after multiple requests for help. While Seth made it out alive, it is important to note that many others like him were medically discriminated against and didn’t survive, nor delivered justice. According to data from the CDC, in 2017, Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, and the Black infant mortality rate is more than twice as much as any other race. Even with increased education and income, Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate. Statistically, the average lifespan for Black individuals is six years less than white individuals, Black adults are 40% more likely to have high blood pressure, and a Black woman is 71% more likely to die from cervical cancer than a white woman. In a Harvard study, Nancy Krieger found that being born in a Jim Crow state “heightened Black women’s risk of being diagnosed with tumors that have a worse prognosis” (Felschder). Kreiger concluded that the increased discrimination has correlation to breast cancer ER status, driven by non-genetic factors. Thus, the stress from racism can contribute to poorer health. Social determinant factors emphasize health disparities.
Even today, during a time of a global pandemic with COVID-19, Black people face discrimination from a virus that does not genetically discriminate, because their communities are being affected at a disproportionately high rate. A Yale study found that the Black American mortality rate for COVID-19 is 2.4 times higher than the white American mortality rate. Systemic racism contributes to this large difference. Black people make up the majority of essential workers and economic factors such as the racial pay gap prevent affording healthcare. Their communities tend to be higher density, limiting the social distancing needed to flatten the curve. As the pandemic persists, it highlights inequities stemming from systemic racism, impacting healthcare access.
Fixing racism in STEM fields requires curriculum changes. On June 10th, 2020, more than 5,000 scientists and two prominent scientific journals went on strike to protest racial inequalities in their fields. Black and Hispanic workers make up 9% and 7%, respectively, of the STEM workforce. As demonstrated by the numbers, diversity and representation in STEM definitely must increase in order to decrease racial bias. A 2016 Pearson nursing textbook falsely stated that “Blacks often report higher pain intensity than other cultures.” Students pursuing a medical degree should be required to take classes regarding racial disparities and take a psychological evaluation regarding racial biases before practicing. Racist medical students should be exposed and punished, ruining their careers before they kill any innocent people.
The common citizen sees scientists dressed in white coats and equipped with a kind smile- benevolent and objective, ready to serve and save lives. But perhaps the real issue does not lay in a glass slide beneath a microscope, and instead in the hearts of far too many: racism is the deadliest yet most unnoticed virus alive.