Slavery in America traces its beginnings to August of 1619, when starving pirates sold about 20 kidnapped Africans to English colonists in Jamestown, Va., in exchange for food. On Monday afternoon an expert panel argued that centuries later, the legacy of slavery still shadows the American health-care system.
The event, “400 Years of Inequality,” was sponsored by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and held at the Kresge Building. Chan School Dean Michelle A. Williams set the tone in her opening remarks with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
Williams provided sobering statistics: The U.S. is one of only 13 countries in the world where more women die in childbirth today than they did 25 years ago, and African American women are three to four times more likely to die than whites. A black woman with an advanced degree, she said, is likelier to lose her baby than a white woman with an eighth-grade education. Worse, certain stereotypes with roots in slavery have endured to the present — notably the idea that black people do not feel pain in the same way whites do, a notion once used to justify whipping and other abuse.
“This has wormed its way into scientific theory and a study published in 2016 — yes, 2016 — said that a majority of medical students still believe it.” This makes being black a risk factor in itself, she said.
“The inequalities of the health system were built in from the beginning,” said former Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, now chair of the Department of the History of Science. Due to harsh living conditions and various privations, she said that slaves fell victim to a range of diseases and an infant mortality rate double that of the white population, yet much of this was written out of history. In fact, she noted, George Rosen’s seminal “A History of Public Health” (1958) says nothing about race or slavery. “The history of the field you are studying makes no mention of this.”