1619 Project: History Professors Discuss Healthcare, the Penal System, and Racism

By Tom Porter

It was the second of four online events organized this fall by Bowdoin history faculty to analyze and share their interpretations of what one professor called "this current moment of racial reckoning, with help from 'The 1619 Project,’” launched in 2019 by The New York Times Magazine.

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According to the magazine, the project “aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." It is an ongoing series of articles launched last year, which was the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in the Virginia colony in 1619.

The Bowdoin webinar, which took place via Zoom on Friday, September 25, was called "Bodies on the Line: Prisons and Health Care.” The event featured a discussion between Associate Professor of History David Hecht, Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Chiang, who also directs the environmental studies program, and Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle. It was moderated by Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies Rachel Sturman.

Each of the professors was given an essay from the 1619 project to read and use as the launching point for a discussion. The three articles they discussed were: “A Broken Health Care System,” by Jeneen Interlandi, “Medical Inequality,” by Linda Villarosa, and “Mass Incarceration,” by Bryan Stevenson.

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Matthew Klingle

Klingle opened up proceedings by sharing his thoughts on the Interlandi article, which examines the racial prejudice inherent in the US health care system. The essay, said Klingle, describes how health disparities began with the unfulfilled promise of emancipation during and after the Civil War.

“With the advent of Jim Crow North and South, the nation further devolved into greater health disparities,” said Klingle. “Every facet of what we take today as modern health care—rigorous medical training, access to basic preventative care, affordable employer-based insurance, and so on— was divided by race, creating what Interlandi, echoing others, labels as a ‘medical apartheid.’”

Today, the article illustrates, the United States is the only industrialized democracy where basic medical care is not guaranteed to every citizen. “Interlandi’s essay is a smart eloquent analysis for the present predicament,” said Klingle. He also said he would like to take Interlandi’s thesis a step further to say that racism has tainted health care for all Americans in the twenty-first century. “Racism warped the health care system for far more than Black Americans long before the coronavirus virus reached the United States,” Klingle commented. “The structural inequities of the system have affected white Americans, especially those with the lowest incomes, least amount of education, and living in abandoned rural communities or deindustrialized cities.” The huge disparities we're seeing in the coronavirus pandemic—from rates of infection to the severity of the disease and its complications to elevated death rates—stem both from socioeconomic status and from race.

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David Hecht

Professor Hecht tackled the article “Medical Inequality,” by Linda Villarosa, a study of the emergence of false beliefs about the physiology of Black people and how they are still perpetuated in the health care system today. “Villarosa talks about the troubling history of racialized medicine, including examples of experiments on slaves, which can make for difficult reading,” said Hecht.

One instance he referred to was the medical trial known as the Tuskegee experiment, where dozens of black men had their syphilis purposefully untreated for several decades, up until the early 1970s. This experiment was no secret, said Hecht, which suggests a history of medical neglect and racism that Villarosa describes as normalized and out in the open.

Hecht said there are worrying examples of these attitudes persisting in the twenty first-century, according to Villarosa. The article cites a 2016 study among medical students and residents that found that more than half of them believed to some degree in the false and racist assumption that Black people have a higher pain threshold than white people.

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Connie Chiang

Professor Chiang talked about the legacy of slavery in the American penal system in her review of “Mass Incarceration,” by Bryan Stevenson. “The article notes that the US has the highest incarceration rate in world, and we can’t understand this fact without reckoning with the legacy of slavery,” said Chiang. That legacy, she explained, has led to a penal system that criminalizes Blacks, views them as “presumptively criminal,” and hands out disproportionately harsh punishments to them, compared to white people convicted of the same crimes.

Chiang also encouraged listeners to think more broadly about the numerous groups that have suffered unfairly at the hands of the American penal system. She referred to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War Two, a subject she has written a book about, and what she calls the “settler colonialism” of the nineteenth-century white settlers in the West, who targeted indigenous and other nonwhite populations.

The next event in the Bowdoin 1619 Project will be on Friday, October 16, and it’s called “Deep Cuts: Structural Inequality and Popular Culture.”