Join In My Anti-Racist Activist Education!

This post will be cross posted at Persephone Magazine tomorrow – be sure to check out the discussion there!

I have no time for a huge introspective post right now, thanks to the two classes that I decided to take this summer. Fortunately, both of those classes are helping to inform my activism, feminism, and blogging! I am taking Advanced Topics in Black Psychology and Film Representations of Race, Class, and Gender because they both could towards my degree and they both help to fill the MAJOR gap in my activist knowledge surrounding issues of race and ethnicity.

I don’t have time for long blog posts at the moment, but I DO have time to share some of what I’ve been reading in and out of class so that we can learn together!

I didn’t know much at all about the Tuskegee Syphilis studies until last week, but I’m glad to have learned. What happened to the men involved in this study (and their families) was terrible. Essentially, over 400 black men with syphilis were recruited for a study on the effects that the disease has on the body (especially the heart, brain, and spinal cord.) These men were promised free healthcare and money for a burial in return for their participation… which is where we run into our first ethical mistake. Technically these men couldn’t consent because, at the time, black people could not purchase life insurance and most could not afford health care, this creates a power imbalance that makes honest consent more or less impossible.

One of the doctors involved with the study, injecting a participant.

The study went on for years, with the men receiving nothing more than pink aspirin and an annual checkup… although they were told they were being treated. Some dangerous treatments (like arsenic) were experimented with and given out for free, but the men in this study were carefully tracked and kept away from any potential treatments. This is ethical mistake number two: deception is permissible only when it is the only option, and its not okay in cases where extreme damage will be done to a participant without their knowledge or consent.

After it was discovered that Penicillin cured the disease the scientists involved with this study decided to continue anyway… keeping the men in this study away from life saving treatment, for no good reason. The scientists wanted bodies to autopsy and study, and they were determined to get them even at the expense of real human lives that could have easily been saved. This can’t even be called an ethical mistake… its just flat-out inhumane.

The kicker of it all is that we didn’t even learn anything new. According to my professor, Syphilis had been studied many times before this. We already knew what it did to the body, the researchers just wanted to see the process in action, and they were willing to essentially kill innocent people in order to get what they wanted.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the United States conducted a similar study in Guatemala around this time. In order to test the effectiveness of penicillin in treating the disease, US scientists purposefully infected people (by paying infected sex workers, or just putting the disease right into the body using medical techniques) and then gave some treatment, and some nothing at all.

When did this all happen? The Tuskegee study started in 1933 and didn’t end until 1972, just 39 years ago. The Guatemalan study took place from 1946-1948, 64 years ago.

[Sources: Tuskegee, Guatemala.]

What strikes me most, I think, is that things have not gotten much better when it comes to our societal structures and racism. While I doubt scientists would dare attempt to violate human rights in as blatant of a manner in the present (in the United States, at least… part of me feels like we’re probably still engaging in some sketchy things abroad), there are still plenty of systemic injustices that place the black population in a vulnerable position.

For example: I found this article, Fourteen examples of systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system, on Tumblr instead of in class, but it is still incredibly relevant and powerful to a lot of what I have learned in a formal setting so far.

Eight. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.


Thirteen. Remember that the US leads the world in putting our own people into jail and prison. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the US has five percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over 2.3 million people behind bars, dwarfing other nations. The US rate of incarceration is five to eight times higher than other highly developed countries and black males are the largest percentage of inmates according to ABC News.

Fourteen. Even when released from prison, race continues to dominate. A study by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that 17% of white job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs. Race is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks without criminal records!


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sees these facts as evidence of the new way the US has decided to control African Americans – a racialized system of social control. The stigma of criminality functions in much the same way as Jim Crow – creating legal boundaries between them and us, allowing legal discrimination against them, removing the right to vote from millions, and essentially warehousing a disposable population of unwanted people. She calls it a new caste system.

Poor whites and people of other ethnicity are also subjected to this system of social control. Because if poor whites or others get out of line, they will be given the worst possible treatment, they will be treated just like poor blacks.

I pulled out a few examples that really struck me, but you really should just go read the whole thing. Aside from explaining the problem of the Prison Industrial Complex in easily understandable terms, this piece makes suggestions as to how we can begin to mend a broken system and highlights organizations doing the work.

I have to go do a paper now, so I don’t have the time to formulate a thoughtful response to all of this reading yet. Plus, to be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed with information at the moment… kind of the same way I felt when I first started reading about queer and gender studies. Just like then, reading and talking and repeating is the best way (for me at least) to get past my own ignorance and move into a place where I can start to contribute to the solution. I hope some of you learn in the same was as I do and can benefit from this as well! So, lets help each other grow?

I’d love to have a conversation with people about this though so please, share your thoughts in the comments!

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