Racism in science: vulnerability and inadequacy of the health system

Doctors must recognize the damage caused by discrimination and racism and consider this environmental disease agent as a vital sign


Medical skill has made it possible to respond quickly to a new virus to save lives and this experience can be used to deal with racism and injustice by protecting vulnerable people from harm

Throughout history, several racist theories have been devised to justify political goals. Presented as scientific facts, they ended up contributing and exacerbating hatred and intolerance. In the 18th century, numerous American scientists claimed that the dark pigmentation of Africans was caused by a genetic disease similar to leprosy. With this strange hypothesis, they justified the cruel exploitation of slaves and various acts of extreme racism. The recent events of violence against black people in Brazil and in the United States demonstrate that the relationship between science and racism is not restricted to ancient examples and vigorously raises the debate about racism in the middle of the 21st century.

For the professor of the Department of Political Science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (DCP/UFMG). Dr. Cristiano Rodrigues, the current wave of anti-racist demonstrations, which began in the United States after the assassination of George Floyd by a white policeman, reveals the persistence of racism. According to him, the magnitude and internationalization of the demonstrations, which brought together thousands of people in different North American states, Europe and Latin America, has as its noteworthy aspects its multiracial character, since it brings together participants from all ethnic and racial segments and it had almost immediate support from an important part of the international political elite.

In Brazil, racism manifests itself, for example, in debates about quotas, when the fallacy of the biological race is often evoked when it argues that, genetically, there are no human races. However, the biological inexistence of the races does not imply an absence of racism or the social significance of the races. “When we talk about structural racism, we mean that there are societies that are structured based on the discrimination of one group and privileges of another. In Brazil, whites have more access to education, health, better working positions, access to political representation and occupy almost exclusively all positions in the judiciary elite”, emphasizes Professor Rodrigues, who complements the racial disparity observed in practically all social indicators demonstrate the persistence of patterns of discrimination and the need to build policies to mitigate the effects of racism.

“Genetic miscegenation is not an antidote against prejudice, since racial discrimination in Brazil is essentially phenotypic, to the point that some authors refer to the country as a pigmentocracy, in which access to rights is directly related to skin color and other characteristics that denote Caucasian ancestry. In this sense, miscegenation does not protect against discrimination, because the darker the persons skin tone, the more subject to situations of prejudice and discrimination they will be submitted, despite their ancestry”, concludes Dr. Rodrigues

Science as an instrument in the construction of racism in Brazil

Professor and researcher in Public Health Dra. Alda Maria Da-Cruz admits that science was certainly an instrument in the construction of racism in the country, since the rise to this level of educational formation in Brazil was never stimulated by affirmative policies. “Now we have a possibility of inclusion with the quota project for graduate courses. Even so, we run serious risks, because the project was revoked, but fortunately the process was reversed. It has an essential role, as scientists start to make this diagnosis and recognize that there is this inequality”, she highlights. Also according to the professor, entering the scientific activity requires attributes that are not part of the training even of the average Brazilian, such as mastering the English language, for example.

Asked whether Brazilian science contributed to the construction of the myth of racial democracy in the country, the researcher recalls the existence of groups in which social scientists study issues related to “minorities”, but scientific dissemination, as a whole, is one of the weaknesses in the area. Therefore, the lack of information ends up strengthening the construction of the myth of racial democracy, she guarantees. The researcher also calls attention to the representativeness of black women in science. According to her, the debate starts to emerge, but it contemplates two difficult faces: one is precisely the inclusion of women, and another is the inclusion of Black people.

The teacher also reveals that there are mentors who are elitist and make restrictions to accept certain student profiles. For her, this type of behavior ends up in exclusive attitudes, such as, for example, preferring students from a public university, who do not live very far away, or who have a car, or who are fluent in English. They do not invest or value students who may have immense potential and who have not had the opportunity to add other skills in their academic training due to socioeconomic issues, she laments.

In addition to the health crisis, Brazil is going through other crises involving social issues, and racism is also on the agenda of the most recent movements, on the streets and on social networks, but Professor Da-Cruz believes that we are advancing in this debate, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. “Each time the topic comes to light, even more with the strength of street movements, more people become aware that the issue exists. This is important, as it rises, above all, in those who are targets of racism”, she argues.

Physicians role in times of injustice and social distress

Racism is undeniable, since it has always existed. However, it finds no scientific justification. In addition to the various social problems known to result, it can also affect health. Several studies point out that racial prejudice is connected to cardiovascular diseases in Black people, besides being the possible cause of depression, anxiety and other health problems in people who are victims of racism. Some scientific studies show that these problems can arise as a result of living under the stress of living with racial discrimination. Brazilian Black people, in addition to suffering racism on the streets, are also discriminated against in the public health system. The Ministry of Health itself launched the campaign “Dont be silent. Racism is bad for health”, that recognized that racism is a social determinant of health.

So how can doctors recognize the damage caused by discrimination and racism and consider this environmental agent of the disease as a vital sign? For Dr. Da-Cruz, the practice of medicine for most specialties presupposes human interrelationships and scientific research can identify vulnerabilities and determinants of illness. The researcher understands that participation in scientific societies, through their periodic meetings, are also channels for exchanging information, disseminating regional or circumscribed problems to certain groups, and mapping problems that can be referred to the constituted powers and that have decision-making authority. “Medical-scientific skill has been enabling rapid responses to new viruses and helping to save lives. This experience can be used to deal with racism and injustice in order to protect vulnerable people from harm”, she adds. Finally, the teacher stresses the importance of interdisciplinarity, especially in the field of humanities. For her, this broadens the doctors views beyond the offices and wards and allows a broader understanding of the health-illness determinants.

Now, in the midst of an acute public health crisis that is transforming medicine, there may be an opportunity to redefine priorities to address this deep and chronic crisis called racism as well. Among us humans, there is no ethnicity, race or culture that is superior to another. Yes, there are cultures, ethnicities and diverse genetic inheritances, nothing else.

Ethnic diversity in science needs guidance on anti-racist measures

According to the survey Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab there is a serious under-representation of blacks, Latinos and indigenous people, both at work and in the student populations, in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the USA and Europe. Also according to the study, among the causes of the persistent lack of diversity in STEM, are prejudice, discrimination and harassment of members of underrepresented minority groups. The issues persist due to continuous marginalization, power imbalances and lack of adequate policies against misconduct in academic institutions and other scientific institutions, reports the work. According to the publication, all scientists can play important roles in reversing this trend, changing the culture of academic workplaces to intentionally implement equitable and inclusive policies, setting standards for acceptable conduct in the workplace and providing opportunities for guidance and networking. As scientists are increasingly recognizing the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in science, there is a need for clear guidance on how to take anti-racist measures, points out the article.

Learn more:

African Americans and Kidney Disease

Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab

Perceived Discrimination and Hypertension Among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Study

Racism and health

Psychometric Properties of the Race-Related Events Scale

Racism Could Negatively Impact Your Health, Study Finds

Diagnosing and Treating Systemic Racism

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