Monday, April 28, 2008

Addressing The Notion That Racism Exists In Our Societal Institutions

Part One: Science, Medicine and the U.S. Government

Recently some people became very angry at the suggestion by Reverend Jeremiah Wright (that “controversial” minister from Chicago) that the United States Government might have had something to do with the creation or spread of the AIDS virus. Apparently, this is a widely-held belief in the African American community. What makes African Americans think that this is such a racist society that they could think the U.S. Government would purposefully create a disease, like AIDS, and then spread it in poor communities?

Perhaps they are reading news stories like this:

Scientists using federal grants spread fertilizer made from human and industrial wastes on yards in poor, black neighborhoods to test whether it might protect children from lead poisoning in the soil. Families were assured the sludge was safe and were never told about any harmful ingredients…Nine low-income families in Baltimore row houses agreed to let researchers till the sewage sludge into their yards and plant new grass. In exchange, they were given food coupons as well as the free lawns as part of a study published in 2005 and funded by the Housing and Urban Development Department…Comparable research was conducted by the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency in a similarly poor, black neighborhood in East St. Louis, Ill.

The sludge, researchers said, put the children at less risk of brain or nerve damage from lead…(which) has been shown to cause brain damage among children who ate lead-based paint that had flaked off their homes.

HUD documents show the study's lead author, Mark Farfel, has pursued several other studies f lead contamination including the risks of exposure from urban housing demolitions and the vacant lots left behind…In 2001, Maryland's highest court chastised him, Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins over a study bankrolled by EPA in which researchers testing low-cost ways to control lead hazards exposed more than 75 poor children to lead-based paint in partially renovated houses…The Maryland Court of Appeals likened the study to Nazi medical research on concentration camp prisoners, the U.S. government's 40-year Tuskegee study that denied treatment for syphilis to black men in order to study the illness and Japan's use of "plague bombs" in World War II to infect and study entire villages.”

Maybe that might make some folks suspect that the government does not have their best interests at heart. Maybe when they hear a story like that, African Americans feel like they are living in a racist society that values them more as lab rats than contributing members. Most of us have heard a little something about the Tuskegee study before (as was mentioned in the story above):

“For forty years between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. These men…illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. Informed that they were being treated for “bad blood,” their doctors had no intention of curing them of syphilis at all.

The data for the experiment was to be collected from autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis—which can include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. “As I see it,” one of the doctors involved explained, “we have no further interest in these patients until they die.”

The sharecroppers' grossly disadvantaged lot in life made them easy to manipulate. Pleased at the prospect of free medical care—almost none of them had ever seen a doctor before—these unsophisticated and trusting men became the pawns in … “the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.”

The study was meant to discover how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites—the theory being that whites experienced more neurological complications from syphilis, whereas blacks were more susceptible to cardiovascular damage. How this knowledge would have changed clinical treatment of syphilis is uncertain.

Although the PHS touted the study as one of great scientific merit, from the outset its actual benefits were hazy. It took almost forty years before someone involved in the study took a hard and honest look at the end results, reporting that “nothing learned will prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis or bring us closer to our basic mission of controlling venereal disease in the United States.”

Okay, so that is two instances of the government doing “research” on black people. Does that substantiate a pattern of behavior against poor black people on the part of the government and the medical community? Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and say no. If you need further historical precedent for these sorts of government activities, read on.

1845 - 1849 J. Marion Sims, later hailed as the "father of gynecology," performs medical experiments on enslaved African women without anesthesia. These women would usually die of infection soon after surgery. Based on his belief that the movement of newborns' skull bones during protracted births causes trismus, he also uses a shoemaker's awl, a pointed tool shoemakers use to make holes in leather, to practice moving the skull bones of babies born to enslaved mothers (Brinker).

1915 Dr. Joseph Goldberger, under order of the U.S. Public Health Office, produces Pellagra, a debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system, in 12 Mississippi inmates to try to find a cure for the disease. One test subject later says that he had been through "a thousand hells." In 1935, after millions die from the disease, the director of the U.S Public Health Office would finally admit that officials had known that it was caused by a niacin deficiency for some time, but did nothing about it because it mostly affected poor African-Americans. During the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi doctors used this study to try to justify their medical experiments on concentration camp inmates (Greger; Cockburn and St. Clair, eds.).

1951 The U.S. Army secretly contaminates the Norfolk Naval Supply Center in Virginia and Washington, D.C.'s National Airport with a strain of bacteria chosen because African-Americans were believed to be more susceptible to it than Caucasians. The experiment causes food poisoning, respiratory problems and blood poisoning (Cockburn and St. Clair, eds.).

1951 - 1956 Under contract with the Air Force's School of Aviation Medicine (SAM), the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston begins studying the effects of radiation on cancer patients -- many of them members of minority groups or indigents, according to sources -- in order to determine both radiation's ability to treat cancer and the possible long-term radiation effects of pilots flying nuclear-powered planes. The study lasts until 1956, involving 263 cancer patients. Beginning in 1953, the subjects are required to sign a waiver form, but it still does not meet the informed consent guidelines established by the Wilson memo released that year. The TBI studies themselves would continue at four different institutions -- Baylor University College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine -- until 1971 (U.S. Department of Energy, Goliszek).

1952 At the famous Sloan-Kettering Institute, Chester M. Southam injects live cancer cells into prisoners at the Ohio State Prison to study the progression of the disease. Half of the prisoners in this National Institutes of Health-sponsored (NIH) study are black, awakening racial suspicions stemming from Tuskegee, which was also an NIH-sponsored study (Merritte, et al.).

1962 The FDA begins requiring that a new pharmaceutical undergo three human clinical trials before it will approve it. From 1962 to 1980, pharmaceutical companies satisfy this requirement by running Phase I trials, which determine a drug's toxicity, on prison inmates, giving them small amounts of cash for compensation (Sharav).

1963 Chester M. Southam, who injected Ohio State Prison inmates with live cancer cells in 1952, performs the same procedure on 22 senile, African-American female patients at the Brooklyn Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in order to watch their immunological response. Southam tells the patients that they are receiving "some cells," but leaves out the fact that they are cancer cells. He claims he doesn't obtain informed consent from the patients because he does not want to frighten them by telling them what he is doing, but he nevertheless temporarily loses his medical license because of it. Ironically, he eventually becomes president of the American Cancer Society (Greger, Merritte, et al.).

1967 Researchers paralyze 64 prison inmates in California with a neuromuscular compound called succinylcholine, which produces suppressed breathing that feels similar to drowning. When five prisoners refuse to participate in the medical experiment, the prison's special treatment board gives researchers permission to inject the prisoners with the drug against their will (Greger).

1970 Under order from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which also sponsored the Tuskegee Experiment, the free childcare program at Johns Hopkins University collects blood samples from 7,000 African-American youth, telling their parents that they are checking for anemia but actually checking for an extra Y chromosome (XYY), believed to be a biological predisposition to crime. The program director, Digamber Borganokar, does this experiment without Johns Hopkins University's permission (Greger, Merritte, et al.).

1990 The CDC and Kaiser Pharmaceuticals of Southern California inject 1,500 six-month-old black and Hispanic babies in Los Angeles with an "experimental" measles vaccine that had never been licensed for use in the United States. Adding to the risk, children less than a year old may not have an adequate amount of myelin around their nerves, possibly resulting in impaired neural development because of the vaccine. The CDC later admits that parents were never informed that the vaccine being injected into their children was experimental (Goliszek).

1992 Columbia University's New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine give 100 males -- mostly African-American and Hispanic, all between the ages of six and 10 and all the younger brothers of juvenile delinquents -- 10 milligrams of fenfluramine (fen-fen) per kilogram of body weight in order to test the theory that low serotonin levels are linked to violent or aggressive behavior. Parents of the participants received $125 each, including a $25 Toys 'R' Us gift certificate (Goliszek).

1997 In an experiment sponsored by the U.S. government, researchers withhold medical treatment from HIV-positive African-American pregnant women, giving them a placebo rather than AIDS medication (Sharav).

This all substantiates a pattern of abuse over time by the government and the medical community against African Americans. When you add in the most recent ones, you see that the problem is ongoing. If you are an African American, you have a right to worry about this, you have good reason to believe that the government and the medical community are racist and you would probably get pretty angry if someone called you a conspiracy theorist for saying that the U.S. Government could have been responsible for creating and spreading the AIDS virus. Now you see there is historical precedent and evidence to substantiate this.

If you are a human being of ANY color, in ANY country, you should be concerned that the U.S. Government, pharmaceutical companies and medical community might try to harm you. Robin Lindley, a Seattle attorney, interviewed an author by the name of Harriet Washington recently (5-9-2007) for an article in Real Change.

RL: And you describe research in prisons with captive pools of subjects.

HW: Yes. And last year, a government panel recommended reopening of prisons to research, and it’s almost certain prisons will be opened to research.

I’m very concerned about what’s happened recently with research in this country. We’ve got someone at the helm of NIH [National Institutes of Health] clinical trials who has adopted, in my opinion, a very cavalier attitude toward the rights of some research populations: prisoners seem to be one, and Third-World patients another. Subjects in Africa and other parts of the Third World have been treated horribly by American researchers. Things are done with them against their will, without their knowledge, and they’re offered much lower standards of research care and treatment—and this is justified as “practical ethics.” Practical ethics means we will do one thing in Guinea and another in Connecticut, that some people’s lives and rights mean more than others.

If you’re talking about the law, which gives minimal protections, a person has to give permission to participate in experiments. But in 1996, the law changed, and people can now be experimented on without their consent or their knowledge. If you’re unconscious and admitted to an emergency department, doctors can use you in a research protocol without asking your permission, without informing you. That 1996 federal provision has been used by companies that have devices to perfect and drugs to sell, and it’s been done with the blessing of some at NIH who are now at the helm. Things we don’t consider fair are now done with impunity, and legally. And ethicists use semantics to defend their actions.

And finally, in this article, it is revealed that not only the African American community believes that AIDS was created by the U.S. Government, but many around the world believe it also.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright's comments about the government lying about AIDS are not isolated to black America, not even isolated to America at all, but are shared globally. They are not confined to conspiracy theorists or wackos, as difficult as that may be for some people hearing the concept for the first time to understand…The first African woman to ever win a Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, shares these views…In 2005, a survey by the Rand Corporation found that half, that's right, one in every two black Americans think AIDS is man-made, more than half believe the government has a cure they are withholding from the poor, and a quarter believe it was created in a government laboratory…In American history, the haunting legacy of the government sponsored syphilis experiments on black men at Tuskeegee, the well documented facts of environmental racism that exposes black families to toxins at a higher rate than whites, and a history of disparities in the health care system for blacks all combine to make the 2005 survey results both shocking, and upon reflection, understandable.

Okay, so, if you are white and you still can’t understand why African Americans might believe that the U.S. Government and the medical community are not to be trusted, answer these questions:

Did you wake up yesterday to hear that the government is doing scientific experiments on the dirt in your community? Why didn't the EPA approach folks in white, suburban communities for this research?

If you protested these sorts of experiments, did you get action or were you just dismissed as paranoid? What kind of media coverage is this story getting? Is there any public outrage?

Is there disproportionately more environmental dangers in your community than exist in others? If so, is anyone in the government doing anything about it?

Is there a history of the government using the people in your community as guinea pigs in cruel experiments, without their knowledge or consent?

We should be concerned that we are ALL at risk from our own government. We should be getting informed, sticking together and fighting for our rights and our democracy. We should not be allowing those in power to divide us along racial lines and by so doing, conquer us all. THIS is why we can't make real change happen; we are fighting amongst ourselves over whether there is a problem instead of acknowledging the problem and working together toward a solution. Is it any wonder that African Americans are frustrated, suspicious and angry?

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