Courtesy of University of Minnesota

Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The justifications for the horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment are mirrored in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Humanity must encourage better public health practices while seeing beyond race.

Apr 19, 2020

This article is a contribution to a short series on literary pieces centered on plagues.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is to the modern United States a microcosm of what the Nazi’s scientific experiments are to modern Germany. From 1932 until 1972, over 400 syphilitic black men from Macon County, Alabama, were medically observed from diagnosis to death and prevented from receiving any treatment for their condition. The men weren’t informed that they had syphilis – instead, the generic colloquialism ‘bad blood’ was used to label their condition. They weren’t told that autopsies were planned for them, and they were given little to no chance to withdraw from the experiment. The fact that these men were mostly poor and illiterate was taken advantage of. One participant said after news of the experiment broke out: “I don’t know what they used us for… I ain’t never understood the study.” The motivation behind the research was so fundamentally flawed and the procedures so mangled that in 1970, Dr. James B. Lucas, the assistant chief of the Venereal Disease Branch for the Public Health Service, stated that: “nothing learned [from this experiment] will prevent, find or cure a single case of syphilis.” James H. Jones’ Bad Blood provides a comprehensive account of the experiment, and secured it a permanent place in medical history’s hall of infamy.
Jones dedicates five chapters – almost half the book – to explaining how racism and medicine interacted centuries before the experiment was conceived. For a long time, assumptions of the inherent inferiority of black people led to a medical consensus that there must be physiological, psychological and personality-based reasons for why black people seemed to suffer from the same diseases differently than white people. These assumptions informed the discourse around syphilis for a long time, since up until 1905 one of the only things that was known about the disease was that it was sexually transmitted. Stereotypes of black people, particularly men, as sexually promiscuous were blatantly visible in how doctors discussed their black patients. One doctor based in Atlanta brought these concerns over the morality of black people to the forefront: “This absolute indifference [towards having syphilis] is a characteristic of the negro, not only [with] regards [to] syphilis, but of all diseases. He is simply concerned with the present moment.”
This rhetoric of one particular race being blamed for the spread of a new disease, with explanations hinging on negative stereotypes of that racial group, may sound all too familiar to anyone keeping up with international news about the coronavirus pandemic. Dozens of xenophobic attacks, some of which have been violent, against individuals who happen to ‘look Asian’ have occurred across many countries, and U.S. Representative Judy Chu has claimed that reports of hate crimes have exploded to 100 incidents reported a day.
To make matters worse, politicians are actively encouraging this vitriol towards Asian minority groups. U.S. President Donald Trump has insisted on calling the pandemic the “Chinese Virus”, and Texas Senator John Cornyn explicitly blamed Chinese people for the outbreak “because [of] the culture where people eat bats and dogs and snakes and stuff like that.” The latter quote is particularly reminiscent of the claims demonstrated in the piece by Jones, chiefly that black culture encourages sexual promiscuity and therefore the spread of disease. Stereotypes of mainland Chinese people as being unhygenic have been around for decades and now this supposed moral defect is being pedalled as the sole cause of a global outbreak. Even if some people in a given culture are less hygienic or aware of disease prevention as others, that doesn’t mean that practices can’t change, and racializing the issue does not help.
It’s worth noting that the scapegoat for coronavirus varies by country and government. The former deputy prime minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, blamed African asylum seekers for bringing the disease to Europe, and Thailand’s health minister lambasted “dirty” Western tourists, warning locals to “be more careful” of Westerners and calling for them to be “kicked out.” In fact, I am currently based in Hong Kong and have seen anti-Western rhetoric becoming a staple of many conversations surrounding coronavirus. Two of my parents’ friends live in a relatively small and isolated community on an outlying island, and despite having not left the country for months, people have avoided getting into elevators with them and holding doors open for them. People have given them dirty looks and even publicly confronted them despite their best efforts to wear masks and practice social distancing to protect their 18-month old daughter. Historical cases such as the syphilis outbreak in America and other pandemics demonstrate how culturally relative blaming particular racial minorities for pandemics can be.
There is another interesting and more subtle way in which racism can manifest itself during pandemics: ecofascism, or the promotion of fascist ideas in the name of environmental protection. In this vein, you may have seen platitudinous posts on Facebook and Twitter claiming that the pandemic has proven the environmental destruction humanity has wrought. Most of the people making such observations probably don’t intend any harm, but they may not realize that other groups are using similar rhetoric for malicious purposes. A common ecofascist argument is that particular populations are more responsible for polluting the earth than others, and therefore population control measures should be enacted, particularly against African or Asian nations. Recently this line of thought has been encouraged by a fascist group impersonating the environmental organization Extinction Rebellion. The group has put up posters with slogans like, “Corona is the cure, humans are the disease.” The idea that coronavirus is the cure for humanity’s destruction of the environment opens the door for certain bad actors to convince others that there are certain racial groups that must be eliminated to preserve the planet.
The attitudes towards racial minorities that encouraged needless atrocities like the Tuskegee study still exist today, as we can see in the instigation of xenophobia and ecofascism around the world in the wake of a global health crisis far more vast than syphilis ever was. While critiquing the poor hygiene practices of some communities is a necessary measure, it should not be done in a way that blames aspects of the pandemic on immutable traits shared by a minority group. Instead it is paramount to remember that different societal groups respond to crises in different ways, that these responses can change, and the key to those changes lies in the education and socioeconomic status of those groups. Even though the creators of the Tuskegee study didn’t understand that, hopefully now, almost ninety years after it began, we are capable of finding better public health practices while seeing beyond race.
Oscar Bray is a contributing writer. Email him at
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