Racism and Science

In the words of Malcom X, “I would like to have an off the cuff chat with you.”  I love to read and write, and clean.  These are some of the ways that I diffuse and divert sadness, or any other negative emotion.  I also clean when I am happy.  My house is immaculately clean despite having a busy household.  At one point we had toddlers, pre-schoolers, and now young adults.  Soon all of them will be in college.  Extreme organization is the only way I can meet my massive responsibilities.  I laugh when people say that having children is the reason their homes are untidy.  I suppose it is a matter of choosing when to apply energy.

Speaking of chores and how they help me deal with serious issues, you probably will not smell food as you drive up to my house if I am the parent on duty.  The men in my family love to cook.  The girls cook out of necessity, but love to bake!  I can eat a salad and a piece of fruit and sleep very comfortably.  I love to bake bread and other treats, but only cook about every seven days.  It is shameful for a lady with deep southwestern roots not to enjoy making huge meals.  Yes, I clean when I need to be pensive, but as a country we need to find some comprehensive ways to eradicate racism.  Even my home economics style psychotherapy can’t clean up racism at the institutional level.

This article is about racism in medical science.  My genre of writing is typically academic, with wrote facts, numbers, and a blatant absence of opinion.  Well, my preliminary commercial should provide clues that I am deviating from the norm today.  This article will have abundant opinions, sprinkled with an occasional fact.  It is now mid-2011 and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Health and Science section has printed an article entitled, “Racism Still Contaminating Science.”  (Faye Flam, Monday May 30, 2011)  I am physically exhausted after a truly successful week.  Two weeks ago, my semester ended as we watched over 1,000 physicians and medical scientists graduate.  It was a satisfying feeling to see this academic year come to a close.  I deceived myself by saying that I was going to rest this year.  (When have I ever relaxed for the summer?)  That is how normal people live.  But for those of us who live ‘purpose-driven-lives-the steroid-version’, we just dream about resting.  I will rest when I die.  This is so sad coming from one who holds the highest distinction of sleep medicine, but that topic will receive an entire article.  When articles like the one I mentioned above, deliver 1925-style facts in 2011, we cannot afford to rest.  The work of Harriet Tubman, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, and Dr. Carter G. Woodson must go on.

I took a nice nap this evening, micro-organized my office, and finally began to express myself regarding racism’s contamination of medical science.  I read Flam’s article, but did not need to have another opinion or another set of facts.  I am an African-American professor of medical science and principal investigator.  I am the founder and executive director of a group of diverse women in medicine, science, and business.  We are on the front line of the battle against racism’s contamination of every field.  We are currently writing grants and strategic plans to open a small medical school and medical center in the Gulf Coast.  Our members have all graduated from the top American medical schools, with distinctions.  One in particular graduated from a prestigious school with a double major in three years, after having a baby during her freshman year.  This same lady has a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and is pursuing a second Master’s Degree in Public Health.  After that, she will apply to medical school.  We are a group of chronic professional students and achievers.  (There is no such thing as an over-achiever.  Either you are an achiever or you are not!)  We have defied all of the odds.  We love our brains, our curly hair, and our brown skin.  We particularly enjoy the fact that we have developed organizations that suit our needs and our platforms.  Like James Brown, ‘we are black and proud’ and ‘open doors for ourselves’.  Racism can go on and contaminate any field it chooses.  We will not be stopped.  We are pioneers.  I cannot tell you how many of my mentors have commented on how I do not fit the statistical notion of a black woman.  I know that they meant well, but the insult was almost tangible.  Most of my mentors are either deceased or in the initial stages of dementia.  As one who now holds the role of mentor, I feel very comfortable exposing some of the racism I have experienced during my multi-disciplinary career.

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1986, I did not know that it was an American center of medical education and history.  Being from Texas, I simply wanted to experience East Coast living.  I looked at the map, saw that Philadelphia was between New York and Washington, D.C., and that was eastward enough for me.  I was busy taking classes and working during that summer.  I had recently graduated from Southwestern Christian College, a historically black college in Terrell, Texas, and was too busy to attend orientation.  So I laid my eyes on Philadelphia for the first time when my parents followed me to the city, with their vehicle and trailer loaded with everything I owned.  At that point, I owned a car which was purchased by my parents, clothes, a large book collection, a doll collection, and a ton of drive.  I was happy to be in Philadelphia.  The trash men had just gone back to work after a long strike and we could smell the city from Chester, Pennsylvania a few miles south.  They wanted to take me home because the city was so dirty.  (The city was still recovering from the race riots of the 1960’s)  I thought it was beautiful.  I saw all of the potential.  Philadelphia is rich in black history and American history.  Once I convinced them I would be okay, I began to read about my new city.

We had the first black mayor, Mayor Wilson Good.  We can thank Mayor Good for the beautiful Philadelphia skyline.  The MOVE bombing occurred the year before I moved to Philadelphia, and was a tragedy during the Good administration.  Philadelphia now boasts its third black mayor, former City Council President Michael Nutter.  Before Mayor Nutter, there was Mayor John Street, who is now a law professor at my alma mater, Temple University.  Philadelphia was a great choice for me.  Being from Texas, I had never seen a black mayor.  They actually hung people on the square in many Texas towns.  (I will write that article later.)  My pioneering grandfathers were successful farmers, despite the racial tensions.  I chose to make my mark many miles away from the familiar.  In recent years I can reflect on my childhood in Texas, and appreciate my beginnings.  I will forever remember my handsome math teacher who was so meticulous and strict.  He taught us how to tie a tie.  I think of him every Sunday, as I tie my sons’ ties.  I needed to see more handsome and smart men who shared my complexion.  So, I hope you understand my love for all things urban and ethnic.

The article lists several facts.  For instance, Samuel Morton, one of the world’s leading anthropologists, was performing experiments in Philadelphia in the 1800’s that measured human skills.  He used that flawed data to justify the enslavement of Africans.  The article further stated that Psychology Today recently published a headline that read, “Why Are African-American Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?”  Morton’s collection of skulls rests at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  Morton’s research came many years before Charles Darwin’s theory.  Morton’s skull experiments equated the size of the brain to intelligence, which is a laughable premise.  It actually works this way: the largest people have the largest skulls.  It is not the size of the brain, but the quality of the brain cells that determine intelligence.  We now use MRI’s to view dendritic trees of brains.  People who read and study a lot have more branches of dendrites, the tree-like extensions at the beginning of neurons.  Dendrites help increase the surface areas of cell bodies and are covered with synapses.  Dendrites are tiny root-looking protrusions that send and receive information.   Synapses are junctions, which allow for chemical and electrical transmissions.  The word synapse comes from the Greek “syn” which simply means together.  I do not want to bore you with scientific facts, but I feel that everyone should have a basic knowledge of how the body works.  How else can we combat falsehood?

I am thankful for my Philadelphia education.  By simply looking at the map, I placed myself at the feet of the world’s most noted medical professors and African historians.  I love them all.  Thank you Dr. Molefi Asante, Professor Kuriamu Asante, Milton Watkins, M.D., Stewart Bryan, Ph.D, Professor Sonia Sanchez, and Professor Evelyn Brooks-Higginbothom.  There are so many others who saw something in me to be developed.  We are still dispelling the myth that women and black people are inferior.  On the East Coast, many of my white professors encouraged me to continue to make the history books false.  My white professors also loved my curly afro, braids, and twists.  They, too, encouraged me to embrace the blackness God gave to me.  I would have never received this affirmation in Texas.

I will close by stating that a text book, written in 1966, falsely states that the black race is the only race that has never contributed anything to society.  The book is almost 45 years old and rests safely on one of my shelves.  We all know that the Leaky team of scientists found the oldest skulls in East Africa.   Others have found writings on stone pads, tools that doubled as art, and many other signs of civilization, long before the Mayflower was conceived.  It does not take scientific fraud to contaminate science or history.  We all must control personal bias as we work to publish our results.  Pardon me for being opinionated every once in a while.  I will probably clean another area with scientific precision before going to sleep.  Every time I read about a study that is laced with scientific fraud I clean and polish my own scientific results.


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