By Rania Kassab Sweis and Patrice Rankine
A recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article highlighted the importance of diverse groups in COVID-19 testing, but we have a word of caution. When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine trials, a concept known as “universal sacrifice” is noteworthy.
The term suggests that in order for medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies to develop lifesaving vaccines, certain people must make sacrifices. More specifically, the National Institutes of Health is encouraging people to enroll in clinical trials and commit their bodies to science. But throughout history, those who have made such sacrifices have often come from Black and/or underserved communities, and their bodies have been used in the name of science, sometimes without their full and informed consent. Universal sacrifice illustrates institutional racism within medical research.
In his 2002 book “Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity,” Cornel West wrote that “the notion that Black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West.” West would not have had to look far for evidence. In the 1500s, European secular and religious leaders conducted debates about the humanity of Blacks and Indigenous people, raising questions about whether they even had souls. By the 1700 and 1800s, Americans like Thomas Jefferson remained unconvinced that Blacks had the same intellectual capacities as their European masters. These are the precursors to the current degradation of the Black body — its conception as a subhuman thing.
It is no surprise that these philosophical, ideological and cultural realities would appear in modern medicine. By the mid-1800s, philosophical speculation stood alongside emerging scientific discourse. Out of craniometry, the scientific measurement of skulls, and then the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, modern science was born, and the concept of “race” was associated with modern science. Not quite human beings, Black people stood as a separate race, one prior to — and inferior to — whites and other races. As the slave trade waned, other forms of physical and psychological oppression emerged. The legal and economic structures for the “separate but equal” treatment of these nonhuman beings already were in place.
Leading up to the 20th century, there is stunning physical evidence of the use of Black and brown bodies in medical science. For example, photographer Joseph T. Zealy took objectifying daguerreotypes, the first publicly available photographic process, for the biologist Louis Agassiz in the 1850s for research. It is doubtful that the enslaved people gave their consent to the use of the photographs. The images, which traveled to Harvard University for study, were but substitutes for the living specimens, the enslaved people working on plantations in the South. More than a century after these persons served as animate tools, “owned” by their white masters, the proprietorship of their photographs, which were meant to prove “that black people were an inferior race,” now is the subject of a lawsuit between Harvard and descendants of the enslaved.
In more modern times, the U.S.’ Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932-1972 is further evidence of the lack of regard for Blacks as full human beings in biomedical science. During those 40 years, 600 men were part of a government-run, publicly funded national research experiment, in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our purported heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, lied about the nature of the study.
Operating with stereotypes about Black male sexuality, doctors withheld treatment from men in order to observe how the disease spreads in the human body. Their justification was that some — apparently expendable — men should sacrifice their bodies for the good of humanity. The criminal negligence certainly caused pain and even death among those within the experiment and an untold number of others. If we learned anything from the Tuskegee Study, it was that racism intricately can be linked to medical science. The famous story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancerous cells were taken from her uterus without her consent in the 1950s and used to launch entire new fields of medical science in the name of all humanity, is another example.
Today, resembling this legacy, minorities actively are being recruited for COVID-19 clinical trials. While they apparently are not worthy of universal health care, these very same populations — the least likely to benefit from any new medical breakthrough — are being asked for their universal sacrifice.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” greatly has been domesticated in 2020. Its repetition in the streets, in corporate boards and in classrooms across the country is welcome. But centuries of painful experience and dehumanization has led to the need for the assertion that Black lives matter in medicine. When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, we should approach the use of Black and minority bodies carefully and critically.
Rania Kassab Sweis is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Richmond. Her research focuses on medical anthropology and global health. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrice Rankine is dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and a professor of classics at the University of Richmond. His research focuses on classical languages and literatures. Contact him at: email@example.com