Racism and Classism in the Medical Field


Table of Contents

As the United States reels from the Supreme Court’s reversal of the once federally protected right to abortion, references to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale are being made and shared all over the internet. This comparison to a fictional dystopia erases the fact that Black and Indigenous people have not had bodily autonomy since this country’s inception. In keeping with America’s violent record of reproductive coercion and medical apartheid, it is people made poor, Disabled, and non-White Women who will suffer the most as a result of this Supreme Court ruling. The pro-choice movement has always centered the voices of White Women of means. Even Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides free, life-saving healthcare for millions of Americans, was founded on the principles of eugenics

The founding of United States was established through genocide, sexual violence, and forced chattel labor of enslaved Africans to name a few. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that racism is deeply embedded in healthcare. The codifying of race formally began in US law in the 1600s. These early laws established the system of racism and have worked to preserve vast wealth inequity. The relegation of Black people to some of the lowest rungs of society through social and economic policies has permeated healthcare and any form of it past and present. From coerced medical experimentation and coerced medical practices, such as the ubiquitous Mississippi Appendectomies, US healthcare has a pronounced manufactured hierarchy that results in disproportionate negative outcomes for Black people and other People of Color navigating the healthcare system. 

Much like other industries, there is a unique blend of racism, classism, and other forms of oppression within healthcare. Poverty is inextricably linked to health outcomes for Black people and other marginalized communities systematically made poor.  Though this history is well documented, the COVID-19 pandemic in particular exposed and broadcasted worldwide the healthcare disparities that exist within the United States further exposing a historically fundamentally flawed healthcare system. 

Dr. Susan Moore documented her experience as a Black COVID-19 patient whose complaints of pain were minimized by a White doctor – an experience not unique to Black Women, Women of Color, and other marginalized communities. When a board-certified doctor’s knowledge and credentials are not taken seriously, one must imagine what this means for regular citizens not fluent in medical jargon or without the financial means to agree to multiple diagnostic tests, often not approved by medical insurance. Dr. Mooore lost her life due to complications from the virus. It’s been stated her requests for narcotics made the physician responsible for her care “uncomfortable.”  Historically, a White doctor’s opinion and belief in stereotypes for example that Black people are drug addicts who are less susceptible to pain than White folks is a certain part of the reason for her death and a central part of Black Women’s lived experience in this country.      

Yet, this is not new news. And there is more than sufficient evidence to move from a space of needing additional data to a place of action taking. What does it look like to disrupt the racism, sexism, and classism present in healthcare and transform the industry into one designed to care for all?  

Firstly, medical professionals and all those within the medical field must acknowledge its long-rooted existence and its perpetuation interpersonally and structurally. To transform the healthcare industry, society will have to reckon with the legacy of past policies such as redlining, and present policies such as eviction procedures. To overhaul the material realities and consequences of racist and classist policies, bold and rigorous frameworks are required to truly address the structural inequity found in healthcare. We have to be ambitious so the next Dr. Susan Moore gets the treatment she requires. 

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