Healthcare equity is indivisible from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. In fact, in a phone interview on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, critical race theorist Deleso Alford pointed to his quote, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”

In addition to being a time to commemorate Dr. King, April is Stress Awareness Month, which should draw increased attention to how small issues combine with racism, sexism and classism to compromise Black health. Dr. Judith Salerno, president of the New York Academy of Medicine, did just that in an op-ed about healthcare inequality for City Limits exploring the long histories of healthcare professionals mistreating Black women. 

As Dr. Salerno noted, organized protests recently secured agreement to remove a Dr. J. Marion Sims statue from Central Park. Sims experimented on enslaved African women’s private parts with neither anesthesia nor legally possible consent, and Professor Alford says there are larger and long lasting implications of his racialized and gendered practices.

“I tell ‘her-stories’ so that ‘his-tory’ can begin to own its negative past while pursuing a positive future,” Professor Alford explained. The race, gender, medicine and policy scholar, lawyer and professor passes down these her-stories to law students at Florida A&M. (Full disclosure: She taught me.)  

The Southern Law Center and Georgetown Law Center alum also teaches medical students at the University of Central Florida, the state’s largest university. Prioritizing the study of these issues is important everywhere, but is particularly prescient locally in Orlando. After all, it’s young, multi-cultural city with increasing post-hurricane populations of color, recurring global visitors and several institutions of higher learning. 

Focusing attention on the intersection of race, gender and health can empower healthcare professionals to recognize and respond better to vulnerable communities, whether they arise as patients or clients, the professor explained. The Shreveport, Louisiana native pointed to how Serena Williams had to advocate for herself when concerns about her pregnancy issues were dismissed and how this example highlights a disconnect between experts’ assumptions and Black women’s lived experiences.

The lesson? Healthcare professionals must move beyond passively hearing Black women’s observations about their health to actively listening and then responding to what we say, Professor Alford explained. 

A related challenge includes training the next generation of advocates to be more culturally aware. Professor Alford hopes to help law and medical students shift from a “disbelief” about how people with power often failed to honor the humanity of the people entrusted to their care to reckoning with our past by improving the healthcare outcomes in society. 

Of Dr. Sims in particular, the professor identified three key lessons:

 1. Acknowledge the power of laws. Remember “how the legal fiction of chattel property is race-based.”

2. Contextualize slavery more comprehensively. “U.S. enslavement yielded more than free labor. It yielded medical advancement… [and] laid a foundation for a specialty in U.S. gynecology.”

3. Challenge reversion to traditionalist saviors. “If we are to acknowledge Dr. J. Marion Sims as the father of gynecology, we must know and revere the women whose bodies were used for medical advancement. Their names were Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy.”

One day after City Limits published Dr. Salerno’s column, Professor Alford began three days of presentations at and around the University of New Mexico.

 

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