Exploring the legacy of African Americans in science and research

In a discussion that covered the legacy of discrimination in American science and its continued effects on people of color’s health and quality of life, the fifth Addressing Systemic Racism webinar held Friday, October 30 drew an audience of more than 250.

The fifth edition of the Addressing Systemic Racism virtual education series focused on the legacy of African Americans in science and research. The series is offered through a partnership between Center for Community Engagement & Health Partnerships, All of Us Research Program, Wisconsin Partnership Program, Lifecourse Initiatives for Healthy Families, Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, and Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

The webinar began with a presentation by Jonathan Jackson, PhD, Director of the Community Access, Recruitment, and Engagement Research Center. Dr. Jackson’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion with Andrea Gilmore Bykovskyi, PhD, RN – Assistant Professor – UW School of Medicine and Public Health, Georges C. Benjamin, MD – Executive Director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), and Randall C. Morgan, MD – Executive Director of the W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute.

Dr. Jackson gave an introduction to the history of scientific racism in the United States of America, beginning with early American scientists like Samuel Cartwright. The roots of scientific racism in America understandably influences African American’s participation in research studies today, he said. For example, the Tuskegee study lasted forty years – until 1972 – and is within the living memory of most people in the audience of the webinar today, Dr. Jackson said.

“We as scientists have earned every ounce of distrust that has come our way,” he said.

Health disparities by the numbers

Dr. Jackson’s presentation examined some of the health disparities facing African Americans today, including the infant mortality and life expectancy rates facing Black women. Black women in America are 3-4 times more likely to die in pregnancy or labor than white women.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also more greatly affected people of color. In Wisconsin, Black people consist of 6.4% of the population, and are experiencing a fatality rate from COVID-19 of 67.2 percent. LatinX people make up 7.1% of the population, but have a COVID fatality rate of 42.4 percent. White people in Wisconsin, for comparison, make up 80.9% of the population and have a 28 percent fatality rate from COVID-19.

Finding a path forward

The panel discussed ways to continue to address health disparities and create research with more equitable outcomes.

Dr. Benjamin said the challenge of the research community is to help people of color benefit from research advances and to better understand the importance of baseline, or where people are starting from in areas such as health care, education, equitable income, housing, and more.

“Simply getting the same cancer chemotherapy isn’t enough if we also don’t have the same early cancer screening,” Dr. Benjamin said.

Dr. Morgan said it’s especially imperative for physicians to give optimal care for people of color who are facing a situation that also has a higher mortality rate for them, such as COVID-19.

“And all people do best when they are treated by a provider who shares their life experience,” he said. There is a strong need for quality science education to encourage more people of color in science and medicine careers, Dr. Morgan said.

The panelists described opportunities for more equity such as when a research group is, for example, starting a vaccine trail, it’s imperative to reach out to historical black college medicine schools, and to recruit for medical trails from diverse schools or medical associations including the Hispanic Medical Association or the Native American Medical Association. When you push more people into the studies, you find all people are not comparable, Dr. Morgan said.

As patients, people need to feel empowered to ask a physician questions, Morgan said. If they do not understand – or feel the physician does not relate to them – the patient needs to feel safe and empowered to say, “I don’t understand what the doctor said. I need to speak to someone else,” he said. Statements and questions like these will help “jar the system” and provide data to health care providers and administrators on where health care is lacking, he said.

Gina Green-Harris, Director of WAI Regional Milwaukee Office, thanked the panelists and attendees and said there may be a second part to this topic at a future webinar. She encouraged attendees to translate the information they learned from the webinar into action.

“It is time to take this information and use it,” she said. “I challenge you now to decide, what will you act on today?”

A recording of the event is available on YouTube. Read the Addressing Systemic Racism Education Series page for links to past webinars.