Viewpoint: Study of medicine is 'rife with racist assumptions'

Researcher Christopher Willoughby, PhD, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that the controversy involving Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, MD, highlights the long history of "morbid racism" in U.S. medical schools.

Dr. Willoughby, a scholar-in-residence in the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, said the image allegedly depicting Dr. Northam in blackface taken while he was a student at Norfolk-based Eastern Virginia Medical School reflects the culture at the time — a culture that medical professionals are still fighting against today.

Before the Civil War, medical schools taught "a brand of white supremacy that trained students to see black patients, enslaved or free, as less than human," Dr. Willoughby writes.

During that time, medical students would routinely steal and mangle African-American cadavers and would potentially subject them to experimentation. Such acts allowed students to form mutual bonds, he points out, and photos such as the one allegedly showing Dr. Northam in blackface "remind us of the social component of education: Students took these photos and made these racist jokes as mementos of the friendships and mastery over cadavers that they cultivated together in medical schools."

The consequences of such beliefs manifest in the way some patients are treated by medical professionals. Many students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville said they believed African-American patients feel less pain, according to a 2016 study cited by Dr. Willoughby. Such beliefs regarding race-based medicine may prevent physicians from searching for social causes or racial health disparities, he argues.

"Putting the Northam photo into the context of this longer history of racism in American medical schools shows that the stakes are higher than just the outing of a single politician with a racist past," he says. "Not only does it reveal how many contemporary politicians … were educated in institutions that promoted toxic whiteness, but also just how deeply entrenched these ideas and stories are in the history of medicine in the United States."

To access the full op-ed, click here.

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