Intentional Health & Environmental Racism

Last month, much of white America expressed shock over a news story about racism in the health care system. A report from “The Washington Post” explained how a widespread algorithm in hospital systems “dramatically underestimates the health needs of the sickest black patients.” This is not news to non-white Americans who have lived and breathed the legacy of discrimination in the healthcare system that stems back to the era of slavery. These discrepancies are inextricably linked to the myths promulgated during slavery in order to justify the institution that black bodies feel less pain. 

            While there has been data for decades indicating the way that African Americans are neglected by healthcare professionals, there is an increasing amount of scholarship in the past decade surrounding healthcare discrepancies across race. Although America’s history is a grotesque pattern of the physical abuse of African Americans, the Tuskegee syphilis study stands out as a critical junction in the intellectual investigation into medical discrepancies across race. In this now notorious study, young Africana American men were purposefully infected with syphilis in 1932. Another important moment in this trajectory is the case of Henrietta Lacks. Dr. Hoard Jones from The Johns Hopkins Hospital took her cells and made scientific breakthroughs without her consent. Many other low-income African Americans were also abused in this way at the hospital, yet their names and stories go unrecognized. 

            Although doctors and health care professionals do not cause the health atrocities from the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the story of Flint’s water fits into this trajectory. Flint’s water crisis is not an arbitrary misallocation of funds—it is an intentional disregard for the bodies of people of color, just like the hospital algorithm. Before Flint, Michigan there was Anniston, Alabama, a story that the mainstream media has already chosen to forget. The legendary lawyer from the O.J. Simpson trial and celebrated intellectual, Johnnie Cochranm won of the largest environmental settlements ever in 2003 on behalf of almost 20,000 plaintiffs. Anniston, a predominantly black town, was purposefully the poisoned by Monsanto because it was cast aside. Monsanto saw the black residents as “more resilient” and not deserving of their health, (a remnant from the justification of slavery), and poisoned their waters and their land. Additionally, the majority-minority neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, Lincoln Park, is filled with toxic waste. Residents have been fighting against the waste that permeates parks, water sources, food supplies and greatly affect the health of residents. And yet, this crisis and act of intentional positioning have gone entirely unnoticed by the mainstream media. 

            While corporations and local governments continue to poison black communities (or if not poison, they refuse to fix them), in the rare cases when white folks suffer from environmental factors, the world stops in order to fix it. The blockbuster movie, “Dark Waters” follows the true story of a white lawyer who helped a predominantly white town seek retribution from DuPont for poisoning their land. Critics acclaim this movie for its progressivism, outlook on climate change, anti-establishment view. Even though this story is a true story, it shifts the narrative away from the real problem. Here is an analogy that describes the way that this movie defines and changes the narrative around poisoning. Imagine if one black police offer lightly tapped a white person on the wrist and it resulted in a public outcry and its own movie. Yes, that incident may have happened but not only is it so counter to the mass majority of incidents, but it also whitewashes all of the other, must stringent incidents. The movie “Dark Waters” further promulgates the myth that environmentally poisoning is colorblind and that the United States is a colorblind society. Structures within mainstream media further this cycle in which the media and structures of racism go back and forth oppressing the truth. 

            The way that communities of color are perpetually undermined by environmental racism flows back to the idea of knowledge production. Science is not without its stake in institutionalized racism. Scientists rarely study the health effects of chemicals that runoff from power plants and other industrial sites because there is little interest in the health of African American communities. Additionally, too many scientists believe in the neoliberal mantra of individualism, ignoring the decades of redlining, racist housing mortgage bundles, biased real estate firms, and more that keep African American (and also indigenous) communities in these toxic waste dump. The few scientists that do dare to investigate the systemic poisoning of black bodies do not get funding because again, black and brown lives are not deemed worthy of aid and examination. The way knowledge is produced (or not produced) shapes the future of knowledge production. The scientific community has rich history of intervening only when it is too late. Too many chemicals that run in the water, soil, and air of African American communities are not examined and investigated until cancer, asthma, and other chronic illness nearly kill off an entire community. The institution of toxicology research too often forgets that  “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” 

What is Africana Studies?

Africana Studies is the cultural, historical and political investigation of the African diaspora. There are two major ways that Africana Studies differs from “western thought.” First, Africana scholars incorporate the effects of power, namely colonialism, neocolonialism, systemic racism, and slavery into their work. Second, even though the understanding of power dynamics is essential to Africana Studies, scholarship around the Africana aesthetic and performance are not viewed as solely the products of power. There is more to the study of art than just viewing through the lens of colonialism. 

In his chapter in A Companion to Africana Studies,Anani Dzidzienyo elaborates on these two guiding ideas within Africana Studies. He uses an exploration of Africana Studies within the context of Latin America and the Caribbean to describe the way that Africana Studies is inherently interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. He argues that studying Latin America provides key insights for and play into larger themes from Africana Studies. He uses this argument in two ways; first, as a tool for looking at the complexities within a field that looks at a diaspora and second, to investigate the way that Africana Studies is a multidisciplinary field.  He writes that “African American Studies involves a direct engagement with histories of colonialism and neocolonialism;” the first tenant of the way that Africana Studies differs from “western thought.” However, he is quick to note in the same breath that Africana Studies is not “all about power…and political action.” This touches on the dynamic between Africana Studies as a power-conscious discipline but not one that revolves solely power. This dynamic is essential for the creation or Africana Studies as an intellectual endeavor that is more than just a counterargument to traditional narratives about the African diaspora. While Africana Studies does harness an understanding of power in the global context, it has its own agency as a field in the fact that it is more than just a reactionary discipline. 

Perhaps because of its newly minted status or because of a deeply seeded systemic racism within academia, Africana Studies is a greatly misunderstood field of study. In 1973, The New York Times reduced Africana Studies to simply “view the relationship between the culture of all people of Africana descent and the society in which they live.” This vast simplification not only undermines Africana Studies as a legitimate intellectual field. Additionally, this simplification also ignores that fine relationship with power that Africana Studies scholars explore. 

There are two works of art that encompass the field of Africana Studies within the context f the United States. The first is Shirlene Holmes’ play “A Lady and a Woman.” This play draws upon the history of the feminist theory, the historical whitewashing (and erasure) of Reconstruction, a plethora of black performance art and literature, as well as an understanding of America public policy during the Reconstruction era. This multidisciplinary approach encapsulates the North American branch of Africana Studies. Shirlene Holmes wrote this play with a deep understanding of Africana Studies and it shines through her characters. The movie “Us,” directed by Jordan Peele (excluding the fact that it is a horror movie) also explores many of the facets of Africana Studies. Although investigations into the power dynamics as a result of colonialism, neocolonialism, systemic racism, and the legacy of the slave trade are all evident in the film, there is also an aspect of an interrogation into the aesthetic, separate from power.     

Economics is the antithesis of Africana Studies and fittingly, can be seen as the pinnacle of western thought. Economics arose, not out of mathematical truths or a pondering about the universe as other fields did, but instead to a sort of productivity linked to greed. In the same step, economics is built on knowingly fallacious models written decades and even centuries ago by out of touch elite, white men. As such, economics and economists have failed everyone in America, not just low-income people ad black and brown people (who were historically excluded from the outcomes of the discipline), but also the wealthy, white elite who it was supposed to serve. Economics lies in direct opposition to Africana Studies because economics is not a serious intellectual exercise. One of its main shortcomings is the fact that economic models do not account for power or the legacy of power. The dichotomy between economics and Africana Studies is important in understanding what Africana Studies is not—Africana Studies is not based on unverifiable models, a way of erasing power from public policy, nor is it a singularly faceted understanding of the world. Where economics fails, Africana Studies soars. While just recently the New York Times, Financial Times, BBC and other major news sources have started question the accuracy of economics, economics still holds up in the view of academia as a viable field of study, while Africana Studies departments do not get nearly as much funding or attention.

In conclusion, Africana Studies offers more than fields that work within the confines of “western thought.” Africana Studies uses power as a tool, but not a rule, for understanding the African diaspora. It is more than just a reactionary discipline. The interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary nature of Africana Studies allows for a greater understanding of the history and future of the globe within the context of the African diaspora.  

“Problems:” The Narratives that Inform Systemic Racism

Zoe Butler

Introduction to Africana Studies

Professor Hamlin

October 4, 2019

 “Problems” are strategically placed holes in the narratives that people in power tell in order to maintain power. These narratives are not just meaningless stories. People in power write these “problems” into laws and institutional practices. Their detrimental effects multiply as the stories become cultural expectations.

In America, cis, able-bodied, white men hold most elected offices, high-level positions in firms that have a majority of the market share in mainstream industries, and important roles in media publications and production companies (Citation 1). White women also use stories to instruct and affirm cultural norms when trying to maintain power, like in the instances of the white woman who fueled the murder of Till and the white woman in the Central Park jogger case. Since whiteness is the dominant trait of power in America, “problems” are any people or actions that threaten the political, economic, and social power of whiteness. 

Dr. Tricia Rose captures the way people tell stories in order to protect their power when she writes, “our public stories are not told in cultural vacuums; the better a story connects to other existing ideas and narratives, the more powerful its impact” (Citation 2). These narratives inform the way that lawmakers write laws, educators carry out discipline in schools, health professionals practice medicine, and the way nonprofits and local governments allocate affordable housing. 

Another way to explain the idea of a “problem” is as a dog whistle–“a coded racial appeal that carefully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites” (Citation 3). One famous example of dog whistle politics in the United States is the Southern Strategy. The Southern Strategy was a set of narratives that ostracized African American and incited fear and violence against them for the purpose of gaining white southern votes. The Southern Strategy is one of many defining cultural narratives that demonstrates the way that stories people tell about “problems” cannot be detached from power dynamics (Citation 4). 

While most of these “problem” narratives can be traced back to individuals or groups (ie the GOP campaign in the 1960s working to win the presidency created the Southern Strategy) it is crucial to note that these stories are not like books or movies. There is no author or set of authors to the way that institutions work together in a system to keep white folk in power and exploit the labor of nonwhites. Each story further promotes pre-existing institutional practices, cultural biases and myths, and laws that remain from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow.  

Lawmakers who create minimum sentences for drug related arrests do not think back to Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology” from The Moynihan Report. In fact, it is likely that they do not even know that the ideas they believe about African Americans are just stories made up to maintain their own white privilege. One feature of the power that comes with whiteness is its “invisibility” (Citation5). When Wallace wrote his famous “This is Water” commencement speech, he was not referring to race, but the metaphor he uses still applies here. He writes, “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about” (Citation 6). 

On the same note, often the power dynamic that drives the creation and promulgation of cultural narratives is not as clear cut as say, a politician vying for votes from constituents. Power dynamics can be on a smaller scale and much more nuanced. When a white family buys a home in an all white neighborhood, chooses to send their children to an all white school, votes for politicians who are “tough on crime” and buys from white-owned businesses, they are also exercising their privilege (privilege is a form of power). But these are not overt, or necessarily even conscious decisions and acts of power; rather, they are a manifestation of the commitment to maintaining their white privilege. George Lipsitz names this nuanced power dynamic as the “possessive investment in whiteness” (Citation 7). 

It can be easy to talk about “problems,” stories, and cultural narratives in the abstract, but since these stories are inextricably linked to power, they have real, devastating consequences. The criminal justice system is one striking example of this. The myth that black men are criminals is a widespread myth that comes from the legacy of the justification for slavery. This narrative is crucial to the creation and preservation of mass incarceration (Citation 8). In reality, no group of people is more likely to engage in unethical behavior and the prison industrial complex was created to replace the Jim Crow laws so that white people can continue to profit from the exploitation of black labor (Citation 9). The “problem” here is the threat of free African Americans, thus white people in power constantly create a systems (slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration) that takes away the political and economic freedom of African Americans.

Although these “problems” permeate almost every institution and conversation in America, they are not unalterable. There are, and always have been, methods for resisting the institutional practices that are born from these narratives and for challenging the narratives themselves. For example, Howard Thurman challenged the anti-black stories woven into Christian practices and interpretations of the Bible in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. He wrote, “why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” (Citation 10) He chooses to rewrite the interpretations of Jesus that falsely frame him within the context of capitalism and whiteness by noting that Jesus himself was an outsider, a Palestinian Jew. Thurman explores the way Jesus, one of the most powerful figures in Western thought, in fact has origins more similar to that of enslaved populations that to white leaders (Citation 11). 

            “Problems” are myths, dog whistles, and stories that inform and justify institutional practices that keep white people in power. These narratives not only cause political, economic, and social oppression through the system of structural racism, but they result in the African American deaths. 


1.  Park, Haeyoun, Josh Keller, and Josh Williams. 2016. “The Faces Of American Power, Nearly As White As The Oscar Nominees”.

2.  Rose, Tricia. 2013. “Public Tales Wag The Dog”. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research On Race 10 (2): 464

3.  Haney-Lopez, Ian. 2013. Dog Whistle Politics. Oxford University Press, ix

4.  Ibid., 6

5.  Reddy, Maureen T. “Invisibility/Hypervisibility: The Paradox of Normative Whiteness.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 9, no. 2 (1998): 55. 

6.  Foster Wallace, David. 2009. “This Is Water”. Metastatic.Org.

7.  Lipsitz, George. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the “White” Problem in American Studies.” American Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1995): 372

8. Delaney, Ruth, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames, and Nicholas Turner. 2019. “American History, Race, And Prison”. Vera.

9.  Smith, Earl, and Angela J. Hattery. “Incarceration: A Tool for Racial Segregation and Labor Exploitation.” Race, Gender & Class 15, no. 1/2 (2008): 79

10.  Thurman, Howard. 1949. Jesus And The Disinherited. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press. 7

11.  Ibid., 34

Works Cited

Delaney, Ruth, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames, and Nicholas Turner. 2019. “American History, Race, And Prison”. Vera

Foster Wallace, David. 2009. “This Is Water”. Metastatic.Org.

Haney-Lopez, Ian. 2013. Dog Whistle Politics. Oxford University Press, ix

Lipsitz, George. “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies.” American Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1995)

Park, Haeyoun, Josh Keller, and Josh Williams. 2016. “The Faces Of American Power, Nearly As White As The Oscar Nominees”.

Reddy, Maureen T. “Invisibility/Hypervisibility: The Paradox of Normative Whiteness.” 

Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 9, no. 2 (1998): 55. 

Rose, Tricia. 2013. “Public Tales Wag The Dog”. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research On Race 10 (2): 

Smith, Earl, and Angela J. Hattery. “Incarceration: A Tool for Racial Segregation and Labor  Exploitation.” Race, Gender & Class 15, no. 1/2 (2008): 

Thurman, Howard. 1949. Jesus And The Disinherited. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press.