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Scientific Racism, Germ Theory and Segregation – A Woman’s Story

March 10, 2013 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Social history

Segregation blossomed in the U.S. not just from a rigid adherence to codes of behaviors but also from so-called scientific findings based on race. In the early twentieth century, new disciplines of the social sciences (such as anthropology) and the sciences (such as new research in evolutionary biology, racially based pathology and genetics) promoted scientific racism. Public intellectuals, politicians and educators began attributing “race” or “culture” to the reasons for the disparities between the health of people of color and whites. By blaming the victims of injustices such as disproportionate access to healthcare and proper nutrition, leaders could avoid addressing the difficult, systematic social inequalities of their times.

Scientists, bolstered by scientific racism, undertook unethical studies that would never have been allowed with white subjects. While many emphasize the horrors of Nazi-supported science, white supremacists in the U.S. conducted their research and published their findings with impunity. While working as the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a controversial report in 1965 (The Negro Family: The Case for National Action) using sociological methods to define a “pathology” inherent to families of African-Americans — that black mothers caused their own poverty and destroyed their own progress toward economic and political equality. Another federally supported study took place at the Tuskegee Institute, where black men (many were sharecroppers without formal education) infected with syphilis were followed in a 40 year study, 1932-1972. Even after penicillin had been found to treat syphilis and ethical standards had been created for medical research, researchers in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study continued to deny those infected with syphilis any medical advice or treatment. In all areas of the U.S., public health policy followed racist interpretations of heredity by promoting involuntary sterilization and abortion to address black women’s ill health.

The Maid NarrativesGerm theory influenced by scientific racism came to influence public policy for segregated water fountains, bathrooms even public transportation waiting rooms. Casual contact between the races could, in this racist interpretation of germ theories, transmit the illnesses from blacks to whites. In the clip below (from the BackStory episode “Rinse and Repeat,” broadcast in February 2013), Charletta Sudduth –co-author of The Maid Narratives — talks about the contradictory ways cleanliness was understood. A black woman worker was not allowed to use the same wash basin as her white employer, even if she was about to prepare his meal.

**** Additional Resources ****

Semmes, Clovis E. Racism, Health, and Post-Industrialism: A Theory of African-American Health (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996).

Solinger, Rickie. Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade (Psychology Press, 2000).

Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (Random House, 2006).

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