The primary goal of scientific researchers is to see themselves as objectively exploring the world through their studies. But based on numerous findings, we have found that research studies are inevitably influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work. This can be manifested in racial biases, gender biases, and much more. Racial bias being the most prominent, researchers must keep in mind that the samples of their study have to consist of each demographic equally. A lack of representation in these studies creates a cycle of mistrust for people of color in modern day research. And it makes sense - why would anyone fully trust research that has no evidence of results that are applicable to them?
The concept of the color line stems from genetic research dating back to the Holocaust. This was a time when eugenics were race-based studies that deemed certain European races as inferior. Researchers measured the noses of different groups and concluded that based on these differences, those with larger noses had smaller brains and were less intelligent. Many years would pass until archaeologists discovered that all humans originated from Africa and that no races are distinct from others based on physical attributes. We now know for a fact that brain size and intelligence have no correlation with race or even gender.
One famous case of racism in research is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1932. In this study, the U.S. Public Health Service department initiated an experiment in Alabama to determine the long term effects of untreated syphilis. At this time, penicillin wasn’t widely known and wasn’t available to the general public. White scientists were to use Black males as test subjects because they were believed to be “lustful” and “barbaric” and were prone to venereal diseases. Darwinism also had a role in this outrageous rationale that viewed African Americans as the lowest species in the Darwinian hierarchy. The general consensus among the researchers was that the test subjects wouldn’t be missed so it wouldn’t matter if they died during the experiment. This experiment unfortunately went on for decades until most of the men died from advanced syphilitic lesions. Even after penicillin came out in the early 1950s, they were not treated with it while the experiment went on. Only in 1972, when the study first appeared in the national press, did the department halt the experiment. An investigatory panel found the study to have been “ethically unjustified,” bringing about conversations of ethics and race in scientific research. It was a turning point in determining the moral implications of human experimentation.
Many remember the Tuskegee Syphilis study, even today. This was a pivotal case that caused a deep mistrust in medical research by minority groups. This is echoed in today’s response to the COVID-19 vaccine - people of color are unwilling to become test subjects to an unknown medicine. Many question why they should trust a health care system that had historically brutalized Black people and other minority groups. This is a very controversial topic that has validity on both sides. People have the right to be skeptical about new medicine, but should also have the courage to be open-minded so that new findings can emerge from it. Most importantly, everything needs to be done ethically and transparently.
This topic is an important one that needed to be discussed, especially during Black History Month. This month is a remembrance of our country’s history and how the sacrifice of many have allowed us to live the way we do today. Thank you to those who lost their lives in the Tuskegee Syphilis study so that we could now have serious discussions about ethics in research.
Brandt, A. M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the tuskegee syphilis study. The Hastings Center, 8(6), 21-29. doi: 10.2307/3561468