June 3, 2023

Dr. Dorothy Roberts presents ‘Ending The Legacy of Racism in Medicine’ at NCC

By Samantha Corvera and Kaitlyn Seawood

Dr. Dorothy Roberts began her presentation by highlighting the disparity in deaths from COVID-19.
Photo by Kaitlyn Seawood

Dorothy Roberts, an internationally recognized scholar, public intellectual and social justice activist, visited NCC on Feb. 13 at Lipkin Theatre to discuss impacts of racism on medicine and medical treatment. 

In her presentation, “Ending the Legacy of Racism in Medicine,” Roberts tackles the history of scientist and doctors mistreating Black people because of their race. For instance, Black people being more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people. 

When discussing the impact of COVID-19 on Black communities, Roberts points to research by Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, an epidemiologist and anti-racist activist whose work focuses on identifying, assessing and mitigating the effects of racism on the health and well-being of the nation, to explain the rise in deaths. 

“It’s not because black people as a race have some kind of innate factor that makes it more likely they’re going to die from disease.” Roberts says, quoting Dr. Jones. “It’s because they are more likely exposed to unhealthy living conditions, because of structures in our society, like residential segregation, and the targeting of black neighborhoods for disinvestment and poor conditions.”

Jones said because Black people have a higher rate of chronic diseases, like asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and other conditions, they are more likely to contract a severe case of COVID and are at higher risk of death.

Roberts then posed the question: What is the meaning of race?

Through her extensive research, Roberts found that the idea of race dates back to the 16th century when America was discovered and colonized. Churches taught its followers that God divided people into races, which Roberts says meant, “everybody else was a degeneration of White people.”

But new research claims otherwise, Roberts goes on to explain human evolution taking place in Africa for the first hundreds of thousands of years, with the country possessing the most genetic diversity on Earth. Therefore, races are actually a subset of African diversity.

But scientists supported the church’s idea of race because they wanted slavery to progress.

“Slavery is the deepest contradiction there is to the phrase: All men are created equal,” said Roberts. 

The spirometer calculates how much air is exhaled and gauges how quickly the air was expelled out. Illustration published by the National Heart Lung and Blood Insitute (NIH)

As science and medicine evolved and progressed, doctors of the time believed Black people were more susceptible to certain germs. Roberts highlighted how doctors believed African Americans had a whole set of diseases that were exclusive to their race and working on plantations and slave ships would give them purpose. 

This mindset is what led to the creation of the race correction spirometer, a device used to measure the amount of air one breathes, and its resulting methods of medicine. 

“Every medical field has instances where some device is adjusted according to the patient’s race,” said Roberts.

Roberts says The New England Medical Journal from 1968 showed Black people having denser bones or lower lung capacities which led to higher radiation being used or Black people not being taken seriously when describing pain. What are considered low numbers for someone who is White are average or above average for someone who is Black. 

Accuracy of treatment recommendations and pain perception are connected, having been biased in favor of White people throughout history. For decades, Black people were refused stronger pain medications because doctors were taught Black people don’t experience pain as severely as White people.

Doctors believed Black people were more likely to develop a drug addiction and shouldn’t be treated with opioids. Thus, doctors frequently devised methods to avoid administering them. Because of this, the opioid epidemic first appeared in White neighborhoods, as White individuals were much more likely to receive opioid prescriptions than Black people.

Dr. Dorothy Roberts concluded the presentation by speaking to participants and answering their questions. Photo by Kaitlyn Seawood

Some doctors still use racial bias as a shortcut. It serves as a rudimentary but convenient proxy for more genetic factors that they don’t have time to search for. Yet, race is a poor substitute and frequently contributes no useful information and it’s simply a diversion.  

The mistreatment of Black people has to be acknowledged before it can be resolved. Not only is racial medicine bad medicine, but the way doctors practice medicine still fosters a deceptive and poisonous vision of humanity, which is why Roberts is so passionate about eliminating it.

“Race doesn’t put you at a higher risk of dying,” Roberts says. “racism puts you at a higher risk.”

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