The Start of My Education as an Anti-Racist Activist

This summer I am lucky enough to be taking two classes that are helping to inform my activism, feminism, and blogging! I am taking Advanced Topics in Black Psychology and Film Representations of Race, Class, and Gender because they both count towards my degree and they both help to fill the MAJOR gap in my activist knowledge surrounding issues of race and ethnicity.

I don’t have time for long and introspective blog posts at the moment, but I DO have time to share some of what I’ve been reading in and out of class so that we can learn together!

I didn’t know much at all about the Tuskegee Syphilis studies until last week, but I’m glad to have learned. What happened to the men involved in this study (and their families) was terrible. Essentially, over 400 black men with syphilis were recruited for a study on the effects that the disease has on the body (especially the heart, brain, and spinal cord). These men were promised free healthcare and money for a burial in return for their participation… which is where we run into our first ethical mistake. Technically these men couldn’t consent because, at the time, black people could not purchase life insurance and most could not afford health care, this creates a power imbalance that makes honest consent more or less impossible.

The study went on for years, with the men receiving nothing more than pink aspirin and an annual checkup… although they were told they were being treated. Some dangerous treatments (like arsenic) were experimented with and given out for free, but the men in this study were carefully tracked and kept away from any potential treatments. This is ethical mistake number two: deception is permissible only when it is the only option, and its not okay in cases where extreme damage will be done to a participant without their knowledge or consent.

After it was discovered that penicillin cured the disease the scientists involved with this study decided to continue anyway… keeping the men in this study away from life-saving treatment, for no good reason. The scientists wanted bodies to autopsy and study, and they were determined to get them even at the expense of real human lives that could have easily been saved. This can’t even be called an ethical mistake… it’s just flat-out inhumane.

The kicker of it all is that we didn’t even learn anything new. According to my professor, syphilis had been studied many times before this. We already knew what it did to the body, the researchers just wanted to see the process in action, and they were willing to essentially kill innocent people in order to get what they wanted.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the United States conducted a similar study in Guatemala around this time. In order to test the effectiveness of penicillin in treating the disease, U.S. scientists purposefully infected people (by paying infected sex workers, or just putting the disease right into the body using medical techniques) and then gave some treatment, and some nothing at all.

When did this all happen? The Tuskegee study started in 1933 and didn’t end until 1972, just 39 years ago. The Guatemalan study took place from 1946-1948, 64 years ago.

[Sources: Tuskegee:, Guatemala:]

What strikes me most, I think, is that things have not gotten much better when it comes to our societal structures and racism. While I doubt scientists would dare attempt to violate human rights in as blatant of a manner in the present (in the United States, at least; part of me feels like we’re probably still engaging in some sketchy things abroad), there are still plenty of systemic injustices that place the black population in a vulnerable position.

For example: I found this article, “Fourteen examples of systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system,” on Tumblr instead of in class, but it is still incredibly relevant and powerful to a lot of what I have learned in a formal setting so far.

Eight. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.


Thirteen. Remember that the US leads the world in putting our own people into jail and prison. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over 2.3 million people behind bars, dwarfing other nations. The U.S. rate of incarceration is five to eight times higher than other highly developed countries and black males are the largest percentage of inmates according to ABC News.

Fourteen. Even when released from prison, race continues to dominate. A study by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that 17% of white job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs. Race is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks without criminal records!


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sees these facts as evidence of the new way the U.S. has decided to control African-Americans ““ a racialized system of social control. The stigma of criminality functions in much the same way as Jim Crow ““ creating legal boundaries between them and us, allowing legal discrimination against them, removing the right to vote from millions, and essentially warehousing a disposable population of unwanted people. [The author] calls it a new caste system.

Poor whites and people of other ethnicity are also subjected to this system of social control. Because if poor whites or others get out of line, they will be given the worst possible treatment, they will be treated just like poor blacks.

I pulled out a few examples that really struck me, but you really should just go read the whole thing. Aside from explaining the problem of the Prison Industrial Complex in easily understandable terms, this piece makes suggestions as to how we can begin to mend a broken system and highlights organizations doing the work.

I have to go do a paper now, so I don’t have the time to formulate a thoughtful response to all of this reading yet. Plus, to be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed with information at the moment, kind of the same way I felt when I first started reading about queer and gender studies. Just like then, reading and talking and repeating is the best way (for me at least) to get past my own ignorance and move into a place where I can start to contribute to the solution. I hope some of you learn in the same was as I do and can benefit from this as well! So, lets help each other grow?

I’d love to have a conversation with people about this, though, so please, share your thoughts in the comments!

9 replies on “The Start of My Education as an Anti-Racist Activist”

I’m happy to see articles like this on Persephone. You know what surprises me, though it shouldn’t, is that you wouldn’t know about the Tuskegee Experiment; that it isn’t being taught in our schools; that it took so long for that program to end and for the government to apologize. The far-reaching, wide-spread disastrous effects of institutionalized racism, that it can remain so outside the awareness of Caucasian people is amazing to me, because it is so blatant and apparent. Sometimes on a purely emotional level, I cannot understand how that can be. Intellectually I get it but emotionally it’s hard to understand and even harder to accept, so makes me very happy to see people who are not of color interested and learning, but more importantly happy to do so.

Seriously, I couldn’t believe that this hardly got a mention in ANY of my high school history classes! My first US History Class stopped right after the Civil War and then when it was picked up in another class we skipped right to Pearl Harbor… so there was a pretty big gap there. This on top of the ridiculous whitewashing and heroification that occurs in US History texts and classes (I’m reading Lies my Teacher Told Me right now and finding it enthralling!)I can honestly say I am saddened, but not surprised, that I wasn’t taught about this event until my SENIOR YEAR of undergrad given that this country’s attitude sometimes seems to be if it doesn’t make white people look good, why teach it?

Same here. There seems to be an entirely separate black history that African-Americans know and teach their children, one that is completely overlooked by white society. People who aren’t black basically have to seek it out themselves. Not so many do; I think this contributes significantly to how difficult it can be for many people in white society to understand racism and really believe how institutionalized it was and still is. They can’t believe their government would actually support such activities and they think black people are overreacting when they talk about this kind of racism, because they themselves don’t see it or feel it. It’s a problem.

“There seems to be an entirely separate black history that African-Americans know and teach their children, one that is completely overlooked by white society.”

Unfortunately I don’t think this is limited to just the black experience — its the story of pretty much all minorities in the US. I know very few people who know what Angel Island is (unless they lived near it), why there are so many people of Asian descent who live in Hawaii, that Hawaii was an independent kingdom we pretty much took over, about Indian boarding schools, or the Japanese internment camps. In comparison, I think the Tuskegee Experiment is fairly well known and acknowledged now, but that’s not exactly saying a lot.

It is a major problem that we, as a society, don’t talk about these dark parts of our history, because it does lead to this mythology that everything has always been hunky dory, aside from that slavery thing. And otherwise decent people, smart people, don’t understand that there are issues in this society that we need to talk about and acknowledge, and that the White Experience of America isn’t the only history this country has.

Thank you for commenting! I’ve already spent a little time googling Angel Island (which, supporting your theory, I’d never heard of before) and I plan to do some research on the rest of what you mention soon. Ignorance to our country’s own past, good and bad, is such a terrible thing, honestly, I really feel cheated by my High School History education. Thank goodness the internet exists and we can have conversations like this, to help change the narrative!

If anyone else is interested in reading about race and the American healthcare system, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is essential reading. From Skloot’s website:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

This book is sitting in my (HUGE, and growing) summer reading pile! I had an awesome Biology teacher last year who spend a great deal of time talking with us about how Henrietta Lacks and her family were exploited by the medical system (come to think of it, he also referenced the Tuskegee studies on the same day, but it was such a passing remark that I didn’t even remember it until now) and I was, and still am, just absolutely horrified.

I wish her story was told to more high school and college students, especially students going in to any kind of research because we NEED to learn about this field’s history of exploitation lest we be doomed to make the same mistakes again :/

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