In order to end the racial disparities that exist in our health care system, we need to teach children about our country's history with medical apartheid. It can start in science class.

By Danielle Broadway
September 29, 2020
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Credit: SDI Productions/Getty Images

Currently, U.S. schools focus on bare minimum coverage of chattel slavery in the classroom, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it stays mostly in history class. That needs to change. Considering our nation's history with medical advancement through experimentation on enslaved Africans and their descendants, we need to start including lessons on slavery and historical racism in the science classroom.

During the current public health crises, conversations of health care and unethical science are particularly important. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted existing racial health disparities, and research has continued to show how medical racism fuels higher death rates among Black people. A 2018 report in the journal Family Medicine found that health care workers receive little education on medical racism. The study results further suggested that curricula that incorporate lessons about racism for health professionals can improve patient care. 

Unfortunately, from the earliest point of education, current school curricula and educators often make the claim that science is unbiased. This, of course, is a very dangerous myth, as it has justified horrific practices in science that continue to this day like the Black infant-mother mortality rates and the racial bias in medical pain assessment. We have a duty to explain this complicated history to our children and it doesn't have to be complicated.

“Kids are hungry for this sort of information and a determined teacher will find a way to include this content in their lessons,” says California-based high school teacher Myriam Gurba. 

We break down some of the ways we can teach even young children about our country's troubling history with science and medicine to help create a racially competent future of health care.

Rethinking the Science Curriculum

The Lesson: Henrietta Lacks and the Need for Ethical Science Practices

What to Teach: The story of Henrietta Lacks is a good example of the importance of honesty, communication, trust, and consent in medicine and science. 

Lacks was diagnosed with a malignant cervical tumor in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the only hospitals treating Black people at that time. During her treatment, a sample of her cancer cells were sent to a cancer researcher who discovered that her cells were unique. Lacks died of cervical cancer that same year, but her cells were used to study the human genome, help develop the polio vaccine, and study cancer cells. Her cells, named the HeLa cells, have made life-saving improvements to science and have been used in research around the world, but she never consented to such use of her cells and her family was never compensated for the profit the HeLa cells earned.

How to Teach This: This isn’t a matter of adding a rushed lecture into elementary school lessons, it’s about reforming the entire lesson plan. When teaching DNA and genetics to younger students, teachers can add a lesson about HeLa cells, as explained in a lesson plan from TED-Ed. Within this lesson, you can talk about where cells come from, how scientists get a hold of these cells, and how they are then used in research for medical advancements.

One high school biotechnology teacher explains how she assigns The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot to her students as a way to better explain cell science and medical apartheid in a digestible family story format in the article "Beyond Just a Cells Unit: What My Science Students Learned from the Story of Henrietta Lacks," published on Rethinkingschools.org.

The Lesson: The Tuskegee Study and a Call for Informed Consent for Black Patients

What to Teach: The Tuskegee Study in 1932 in Alabama is another example of researchers abusing Black people needing treatment for scientific gains without their consent. Researchers told 600 Black men, 399 diagnosed with the disease syphilis, that they were being treated for "bad blood," when in fact they weren't being treated or cured at all. The study was supposed to last six months, but the study resumed for 40 years while advances in treating syphilis became better and more widely available. Ultimately, the Black men in the Tuskegee study were followed to their death never receiving treatment for syphilis and without being informed they could ever leave the study.

How to Teach This: Within a science classroom, teachers can introduce the study when discussing how their students control their health. In the article "Medical Apartheid: Teaching the Tuskegee Syphilis Study," one high school teacher explains how she brings up this study by asking her students what health decisions they can control, and then explaining who gets to have this control within a social justice lens. "An English teacher teaching Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man could present a lesson on the Tuskegee experiments and connect the content to the text,” says Gurba.

It may be daunting to talk about these tragic examples with children, but students should know that scientific bullying is unacceptable and everyone equally deserves to consent or not to their own treatment. These are only two examples of historical racism in health care that impact our modern medical system, but racism is also evident in how researchers make medical advancements and in America's infant-maternal mortality rates. Read more about how Black women are disproportionately affected by maternal mortality in Parents.com's investigation into birth in America.

Overcoming Resistance

Many teachers have stepped up to explain why these lessons are so important and what the inclusion of a section on medical apartheid may look like. Heather Harlen, an English teacher and author of Shame, Shame, I Know Your Name, has been teaching for 23 years and explained that this shift in education can only take place if everyone’s on board.

This means that all of the teachers and administrators need to do their part in working together to cover this topic. “Teaching students about medical racism isn’t too serious for kids, and they need to learn about it in order to be informed citizens and allies,” says Harlen. In her experience teaching grades 4 through 12, she has often heard science teachers explain that science is universally objective—a perspective that erases the experiences of Black people through a whitewashed curriculum

Gurba says teachers might be resistant to buying in to teaching about medical racism for one major reason: “Teaching racial history makes white instructors uncomfortable.” But other hard to digest topics are covered in early learning classrooms. "High school teachers tell us that they have to unteach what their students learn in earlier grades," reports an article, "Teaching Hard History," published by Teaching Tolerance. "This doesn’t happen in any other subject: Math, science, and reading all begin with fundamentals and build on them." 

Gruba's taught U.S. and world history for 18 years and says that our country’s history of medical experimentation on Black people is an example of how science prioritizes lengthening “the lives of white people through Black suffering and death.” Both Harlen and Gurba agree that once white teachers and school officials stop placing their discomfort and privilege over the education that all children need, incorporating medical racism into school lessons is not a difficult task. It might feel uncomfortable to merge racism into science lessons, but in reality, it’s already there.

Lesson Plans and Resources for Parents and Teachers

Lesson plan for grades K-5: Teaching Hard History: Grades K-5 Introduction, Teaching Tolerance

Lesson plan for grades 9-12: Racial Disparities Jigsaw Mini-Unit, Teaching Tolerance

Lesson plan for grades 9-12: Joe Madison: Tuskegee Institute Syphilis Study, PBS Learning Media

Additional reading: Beyond Just a Cells Unit, Rethinking Schools

Additional reading: Medical Apartheid: Teaching the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Rethinking Schools

Read more on how to talk to your kids about Black history in Parents.com’s Anti-Racist Curriculum, here. 

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