‘It’s the Oldest Story’: Biased Medicine Continues During the Pandemic

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Apr 15, 2020

For several weeks, the media has been reporting on the disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Black community, and while lawmakers and health professionals call for more data on race, scholar Mab Segrest explained the origins behind healthcare bias in an interview published in City Lab on April 14.

“The pattern that I see emerging today goes back to the oldest antebellum ideas of blaming Black people,” Segrest, a Gender and Women’s Studies professor at Connecticut College, told City Lab. 

This month, Segrest published her research detailing the racist approaches that have been used against Black Americans in the mental health field in the new book, “Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum.”  According to Segrest, the blame game continued after the Civil War, when White supremacists began to see emancipation as the problem. “Anything that happened to Black people after emancipation was their fault because they should have stayed slaves basically,” Segrest said. “So this pattern of blaming the victim then is very deeply set.”  

Below are more highlights from the interview, where Segrest also reflects on the responses U.S. leaders have made regarding the current pandemic:

How public health policies impact race:

"We started sterilization, and sterilization after the 1930s and 1940s was really rampant in these state institutions set up for mental illness and the so-called feeble-minded. And Hitler is paying attention in the 1920s and 1930s so they started sterilizing people. Then in 1939 they went beyond sterilization to the elimination of people and started the Aktion T4 program, which was the first Nazi extermination program aimed at disabled people. They just cleared out the hospitals and mental hospitals and figured out a gas chamber for them. That was the beginning of Nazi extermination. These ideas have really deep roots and extreme consequences."

On the Administration’s slow response: 

"We’ve had this information from China from January on. The president has been warned of it from January on. He’s denied it, he’s deflected it. And now the United States has the highest rates of infection of any in the world, which was so tragically unnecessary. (Editor’s note: The U.S. has the highest number of confirmed deaths in the world as of April 13, although not the highest rate deaths per capita. Rates of confirmed infection are also being tracked, but remain imprecise due to testing limitations.) And now we’re seeing some of the actual racial demographics come out that Black people are disproportionately being affected. And that is just the oldest story in this country."

On what health professionals miss when they focus solely on race:  

"I found when I looked at the records of the Georgia asylum that Superintendent Powell, as he wrote about degenerate populations, immoral people, and unfit people, he was at the same time presiding over multiple epidemics within his own institution that he wasn’t paying attention to. Because he really didn’t care about the germ theory of disease, although that had been around since 1882 when Robert Koch in Germany discovered the tubercle bacillus. And you might think that a superintendent who was alarmed at the rising rates of tuberculosis in his insane asylum for both Black and White people, but particularly for Black people, might want to be up on the latest research, but he wasn’t. He was more concerned with these very simplistic ideas like heredity and would claim that 90% of the folks in the asylum were there because of their bad families or hygiene."

To read the full interview, visit City Lab here.