Northampton Community College (NCC) welcomed award-winning scholar, author, and social justice advocate, Dr. Dorothy Roberts, for a presentation on “Ending the Legacy of Racism in Medicine” on February 13 in the Lipkin Theatre on Bethlehem campus. Roberts has always been a prominent voice in the discussion of the intersection of race and medicine. She has highlighted how racism is still prevalent in the medical field, posing a significant risk to patients of color and how medical racism has deep roots in American history, dating back to the era of slavery. In her presentation, Dr. Roberts discussed multiple examples of how racism in medicine goes beyond individual acts of bias and includes systemic issues, such as misdiagnosis and the mistreatment of Black patients.  

Historically, Roberts explained, doctors were essential in promoting the biological concept of race. Doctors perpetuated the myth that people of different races have different physical make-up and experience diseases dissimilarly. White doctors diagnosed Black patients with made-up medical conditions, such as drapetomania (a supposed mental illness that made slaves want to escape), to justify enslavement and dehumanize them. Doctors said that Black people had lower lung capacity compared to white people, meaning that they had to be forced to work for white people in order to remain healthy. These pseudoscientific theories justified the inferiority of Black individuals and extended the myth of racial superiority. 

“Race correction was the outcome of these early racist actions, and this changed the way medical equipment has been used for years to come,” explained Roberts. Doctors would re-calculate or ‘correct’ the way medical equipment, such as X-ray machines, would be used based on the patient’s race. For example, studies found that doctors would increase the radiation in X-ray machines because they believed Black people had thicker skin, more muscle mass, and more density in their bones. Roberts presented studies showing that in the year 2020, scientists have found that there are still multiple racial corrections being used in a variety of medical fields.  

Medical studies have determined that these false beliefs about Black people’s bodies have led to inadequate care, including the under-treatment of Black people and their pain. “Doctors have given Black people either no medication or very little medication for common painful experiences such as bone fractures, appendix pain, and even C-sections, when compared to treating white patients,” said Roberts. 

Roberts made the point that, “human beings have always mixed together, and genetic diversity is clinal and shifts as you go around the globe.” Even after the human genome project, there are still scientists who are defining race as a genetic grouping and giving genetic explanations for racial inequities in the United States, thus globally prescribing race-specific biological remedies instead of needed social change. Roberts told the audience this was the motivation behind one of her published books, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century.  

Black people are already less likely to have high quality healthcare than their neighbor due to structural racism, and they are more likely to be dismissed by doctors due to race, Roberts pointed out. She stated how we must pay attention to all these contributions to health inequities based on race and racism in America.  

Roberts explained that as a country we have seen small victories in challenging this injustice. One example she gave was the recent finding of race correction in the National Football League (NFL). The league was sued for testing players for brain damage and using race correction to alter the results for Black players. Shortly after this event, many other medical fields looked at their own records and practices and realized they were doing similar unconventional practices. 

Roberts left the audience on a powerful note. “If we want a most just and equal society for everybody, we need to contest this idea that we are divided biologically by race and instead affirm our common humanity by ending the structural inequities that actually divide us.”