Lovell's Food For Thought - Racism & Health Inequities

Do We Really Want to Address Either? My Perception is NO

Dr. Lovell Jones | 12/5/2017, 6 a.m.
Thirty years ago I wrote my first NIH grant on addressing breast cancer in African American Women. In that grant ...
Dr. Lovell A. Jones retired as Professor Emeritus from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

This is not say that other effective research efforts dealing with minority populations are not taking place. On the contrary, they are. However, most efforts lack a clear focus on minority health issues. As a result, they have been neither culturally competent nor culturally relevant. When the staff of a hospital deals with the health problems of minority patients without the training, insight, or sensitivity needed to approach these individuals, efforts are doomed to failure. You might not see this as racism, but I do.

As a scientist who happens to be a member of a minority group, I am especially concerned about this lasting impact of racism and benign neglect on the health of minorities and the medically underserved. Despite protests to the contrary, minorities who act on this concern are generally stereotyped by some in the scientific community as not being real scientists.

The question is: Can you judge the content of someone's mind when you have already stereotyped him or her on the basis of race? Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once stated that he had never been anyplace in the U.S. where he had to put his hand up in front of his face to know he was black. He was alluding to the fact that lurking in the minds of many Americans was the idea of the fundamental inferiority of minorities, especially African Americans. This attitude still exists today, even in the areas of health and education.

The discipline of science knows no color. The pursuit of determining a reason for a situation should not be different. Yet when minorities try to address the disparities of one group in relationship to another, it is viewed as affirmative action. Ultimately, this limits the number of individuals‐especially minorities‐who investigate these health disparities.

Is this a product of stereotyping and the ultimate value one places on the health of minorities and the medically underserved? In most cases, it is. For example, cancer is a major cause of death in minority populations, yet we know very little about this disease in these populations.

Filling The Pipeline

We can seriously address the need to involve more minorities in sciences. I need only point to the Meyerhoff Scholars' Program run by Freeman A. Hrabowski III at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as an example. Among the undergraduates at this majority institution are the young Meyerhoff scholars, who are both valued and mentored. Within this group are academic stars with perfect math SAT scores, athletes who never earned below an A through high school and college, kids under 20 years of age whose work has been published in scholarly journals, and students who regularly earn A's in such courses as genetics and organic chemistry.

But don't assume that all of these students are from the top prep schools. Many of these students are minorities from poor families and went to public schools in inner‐city or rural communities. Given a nurturing environment, these students‐like all students‐can succeed.

Unfortunately, such programs that value and mentor minority students do not exist across the country. We talk about the lack of minority scientists and pipeline issues, yet such programs are rarely highlighted or, worse, not duplicated.