The Role of Race and Racism in the Devolution of the Left



“When the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare, crime, rights, or values … the real subject is RACE.” So read the cover story for the May 1991 issue of The Atlantic. The authors, Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall were prescient in observing the subtle and insidious ways in which race and racism—through code words, euphemisms, and circumlocutions—have penetrated political discourse during the half-century since the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. In retrospect, the 1964 election, in which Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide, was the last hurrah of the Democratic Party. Republicans won 5 of the 6 elections between 1968 and 1988, and 7 of the 10 elections between 1968 and 2004, thus establishing firm control over the institutions of national power, including the Supreme Court. This can only be described as a counter-revolution in which many of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement were eviscerated or wiped out altogether. From there, the conservative ideological crusade went on deploy the tropes of race and racism in a sweeping attack on liberalism and the liberal policy agenda.

After the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, there was a relentless effort to drive every last nail into the coffin of the civil rights movement. Furthermore, conservative intellectuals and strategists seized upon the mounting popular opposition to the Great Society and the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party. With the help of nascent neocons, conservatives underwent an ideological facelift: they now portrayed themselves as the champions of the rights and interests of white workers. This rhetoric gained momentum with an ideological crusade against affirmative action during the 1980s, followed by an attack on “welfare”—that is, Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC). However, these were only dress rehearsals for a larger assault on the welfare state itself. Emboldened by their success, the partisans of counter-revolution, with the backing of right-wing foundations and think tanks, launched a campaign against the New Left and “the Left academy.” Thanks to their control of the White House for 28 years, Republicans were able to pack the Supreme Court with judges weaned by the Federalist Society, which today has chapters in over 200 law schools across the nation. The result was the effective gutting of affirmative action, the most important policy initiative of the post-civil rights era. Affirmative action drove a wedge in the wall of occupational segregation that has existed since slavery, and produced, for the first time, a sizable black middle class with a foothold outside the ghetto economy. Without affirmative action, we are beginning to witness the erosion of these gains, and a widening of the gap between blacks and everybody else.

Only in hindsight is it clear that Bill Clinton, the New Democrat, represented a transitional period in a reactionary spiral that morphed into neoliberalism. Let me make two related points about race and neoliberalism. First, race and racism were used, with political cunning, to epitomize all that is wrong with the welfare state, to whip up antagonism toward the “big government” that gave us the New Deal and the Great Society, and to impart new legitimacy to “states rights,” which, let us remember, was the ideological linchpin behind the Civil War. Second, the policies enacted under the emergent neoliberal regime have all had particularly devastating effects on African Americans. Indeed, Glenn Beck has ridiculed universal healthcare, universal college, and green jobs as “stealth reparations.”

The Right has been ingenious in playing the race card over the last half-century, and if the Left is going to prevail, it will have to trump that race card with one of its own. Progressives and their allies in labor can begin by confronting their own complicity in a racial division of labor that privileged white men above all others. To paraphrase Justice Brennan, we need to engage race in order to transcend it. Only then will it be possible to restore “poverty” and “inequality” to political discourse. To build coalitions across racial and class lines. And to advance a political agenda that can effectively challenge class power and neoliberal rule.

This is a synopsis of a larger paper that was published in the current issue of LOGOS, an online journal.

Democracy or Authoritarianism: What are we becoming?



A standard part of most political science introductory textbooks are definitions and examples of different kinds of political systems. Robert A. Heineman’s textbook outlines the three main types of governmental systems: democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian systems.

Most Americans are familiar with the democratic system. As participants in such a system we have come to believe, and indeed to expect, we have certain rights and freedoms. These are things like rights to select who will represent us, rights of assembly, rights of free speech, and freedom of association. However, people are less familiar with some of the characteristics of authoritarianism, at least not when these characteristics are exhibited by American governmental institutions.

Unfortunately, because of current immigration policies in many states, it is becoming important for Americans to reacquaint themselves with the definition of authoritarianism. According to Heineman, the characteristics of authoritarian governmental systems include greater control of political processes, greater citizen obedience to a strong government, restricted freedoms of expression of ideas or association, and of course governmental punishment of disobedience (p.3).

Many state immigration public policies are regrettably looking more and more authoritarian and less democratic. The most recent example is Alabama’s immigration policy, which has passed by large margins in both houses of the legislature is expected to be signed by Governor Robert Bentley.

Alabama’s new immigration policy requires children to provide documentation before being enrolled in public school, bars landlords from renting to people who are undocumented, allows police officers to ask about one’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, denies businesses tax deductions on wages paid to unauthorized immigrants, criminalizes the failure of an immigrant to carry documentation proving their legal status on their person, and criminalizes the transport of an illegal immigrant.

Through the measure, Alabama has gone a very long distance from our ideals of American democracy, so much so that even being in a car with someone who is undocumented becomes a crime. One wonders if public bus drivers will now ask for documentation and a bus token before letting a brown person board their bus. Alabama has a history of denying basic liberties and justice for blacks. Now it has found a new group to target its unjust and arbitrary use of state power and racism.

In a Michele Wucker’s chapter in Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right she quotes George W. Bush’s presidential inaugural address:

America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more not less American (p. 139).

Based on Arizona’s, Utah’s, and now Alabama’s most recent anti-immigration bill, we are becoming less American every day.

Targeting Latino Children is Not the Answer

A recent article published in the New York Times by Kirk Semple reports that federal officials have had to send a memo to various states and school districts informing them that asking for citizenship status before enrolling children is illegal. It seems not only are many school districts (139 in New York State alone) are asking for documentation of students, but certain states such as Oklahoma are considering state bills requiring it. This should not surprise us considering the fact that Congress could not pass the Dream Act, that we have witnessed record number of deportations in recent years which have separated families and placed children in the foster-care maze, and that states have passed discriminatory laws like Arizona’s SB1070. These examples all point to a dark shadow side of America, this land of immigrants.

Xenophobia is nothing new in America, especially during economic hard times. Politicians and other civic leaders historically have succeeded in redirecting the public’s attention to symbolic policy issues that target the most vulnerable, the voiceless, and those who are marginalized. To an American of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Irish, or Southern or Eastern European ancestry, this isn’t news. Immigrants from these groups know all too well what it is like to be needed for one’s labor, but despised for one’s presence. We’ve been down this road before. Recall the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, halting new Japanese immigration in exchange for non-discrimination against those of Japanese descent already in the U.S., as examples of racist immigration practices in America’s past. Arizona’s SB1070 is not unique in our history. What is different now is that this treatment is now being directed to children too.

The current immigration debate focusing on Latinos is no different from our past. Whether one is a proponent of earned citizenship through some time of amnesty, tougher border enforcement either by building fences or militarizing the border, a proponent of another guest worker program, or is engaged in the on-going debate about whether immigrants cost or benefit society, Latinos in America are experiencing prejudice, discrimination, cruelty and mistreatment from this latest round of scapegoating. The bottom line is that the 50 million Latinos in this country—16.3 percent of the population according to a new Pew Hispanic Report, are not accepted or seen as real Americans, regardless of our legal or professional status as discussed in a forthcoming book on Latino professionals. The current debate on immigration underscores this fact.

People need to remember some fundamental American values, such as the Golden Rule and what it means to walk in the footsteps of another. If we can honestly put ourselves in immigrants shoes, we may see that most of us would make the same decisions that undocumented workers have made. Regardless of the law, we would make the sacrifices necessary to do the best we can for our families. For example, try to sincerely imagine living in an agricultural community that, since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has suffered tremendous financial hardship. Local corn, grown there for generations, can no longer compete against the corn imports from the United States, which are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. To clothe your children, your wife has taken to sewing their underwear out of old flour sacks. Your children lack shoes. Your family eats little protein, maybe once a week. Meals mostly consist of “chicken” soup, without the chicken — a watery broth of tortillas or rice and beans. The only hope seems to be to go work in the U.S. While it breaks your heart to leave your children behind, knowing your youngest may not even remember who you are upon your return and knowing your older ones need you to learn life’s lessons, you make the only rational decision a family-centered person can. You give up everything and join the countless numbers of people who have left their communities empty of working-aged men.

Not many of us could sit back and watch our children or elderly parents suffer hunger and destitution without doing something to ease their suffering and improve their lives. Missing from so much of the immigration debate is the humanity of the undocumented immigrants who are making sacrifices such as being separated from their children often for years, or being away and unable to return if a parent dies. These are sacrifices most of us cannot even imagine.

It is only through an understanding of the complex circumstances that lead people to migrate that we can create a much-needed constructive, humane, realistic, and just immigration policy. Blaming undocumented immigrants is not the answer. As Michele Wucker states in her book Lockout, “The population of immigrants who are in this country without legal papers did not grow to more than 10 million people without America’s full participation in the legal charade.”

Instead of focusing on the unjust immigration laws, politicians, political pundits, and anti-immigrant advocates have hypocritically taken the stance that undocumented workers are “lawbreakers” who need to learn to “follow the rules” and “do it the right way.”

They should take note that laws can be, and are often, wrong. When half the American population could not vote until 1920, were women wrong to demand the law changed?

Instead of hiding behind the façade of law, we should remember the humanity of undocumented immigrants. We all lose when we discriminate against one another. We are a better country than to require children to prove residency status in order for them to go to school. Targeting children is not the answer.

Intentional Impoverishment: Washington and the National Trend



What kind of community burdens the least advantaged? What kind of community makes those that are already suffering the most suffer more? The answer is one that is extremely shortsighted—one that neither focuses on justice nor on the next generation. According to a new report by the Washington Community Action Network called, “The Color of Cuts: The Disproportionate Impact of Budget Cuts on Communities of Color in Washington State”, the state of Washington, where one in five residents is a person of color and one in ten residents is an immigrant, is one of these communities. The report argues that state budget cuts will have a disproportionately negative affect on people of color in a state that already has significant racial disparities. Some of the indicators of current racial disparities highlighted in the report include the following:

According to the Education Trust and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Washington State is ranked in the bottom-five of all states when it comes to closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap. At its current pace it will take 45 to 50 years to close the gap between students of color and their White counterparts.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in the fourth quarter of 2010 unemployment for Whites was 8.5 percent. This was considerably lower than unemployment rates among Latinos or African Americans, 12.9 percent and 15.8 percent respectively.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, African American men and women are much more likely to die of heart disease and stroke than their White counterparts. This is despite the existence of low-cost, highly effective preventive treatment.

According to Washington State’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission, youth of color comprise 45 percent of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration population despite comprising only 27 percent of the state’s youth population.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the third quarter of 2010 the homeownership rate for African Americans was just 45 percent. The homeownership rate for Latinos was 47 percent, while the homeownership rate for Whites was 75 percent.

According to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, people of color in Washington State are far more likely to be living in poverty than non-Hispanic Whites” (p. 4).

The Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs 2009 Assessment reported that median annual earnings in 2007 for Hispanics was $20,238 a year, for blacks it was $25,298 a year, and for whites was $32,482. These numbers are very similar to the figures put out by the Pew Hispanic Center for 2009. The Commission on Hispanic Affairs 2009 Assessment further indicated that 31% of Hispanic children under 17 years of age are living in poverty, 33% of black children are living in poverty, and 10% of white children are living in poverty.

Many people are hurting across the nation during these difficult economic times, especially people of color. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that state legislators pursue a utilitarian approach to policy making. However, one has to wonder how much different our society would look if they pursued a more Rawlsian approach—one that replaced “the greatest good for the greatest number” conception with Rawls’ belief that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions”. The Rawlsian liberal egalitarian theory of justice sets forth the notion of a society that is established under the veil of ignorance and spelled out in a contract that is public and has clear limits and conditions. According to Rawls, justice would result from collective decision rules that rational people operating under a veil of ignorance would choose in formulating a contract system of government. Rawls believes that “each person in the original position should care about the well-being of some of those in the next generation.” According to Rawls, a just society must have equality of opportunity through perfect procedural justice. He provides an example of perfect procedural justice with in the situation of an individual dividing a cake and picking his piece last. For Rawls injustice is a state in which inequalities do not benefit everyone in society. This describes the budget in Washington state and probably many other states as well. Some of the programs that will be cut or eliminated include: a 300% increase in premiums for people in Apple Health for Kids, a 50% reduction in the State Food Assistance Program, a 1.5 million dollar cut in Refuge Employment Services, the consolidation of the various Ethnic Commissions, and the elimination of the New American Program. Unfortunately, until we can agree to “share one another’s fate” as Rawls would call us to do, people of color and the poor will feel the burdens of state cuts more than anyone else. The results of these cuts will be with us for generations.

Washington: No In-State Tuition for Immigrants, Then No Sales Taxes



State Senate Republican ranking minority member of Financial Institutions Housing and Insurance Committee, Don Benton has just dropped a bill (Senate Bill 5828) that would deny undocumented resident students of Washington in-state tuition and state financial aid at state universities.

This is a terrible policy idea on many counts. At a time when engineering programs at the University of Washington are turning away half of qualified applicants because of budget cuts, having an easy scapegoat for the problems in our state universities is typical. Why not blame undocumented immigrants for the crisis in higher education? Many of my students actually believe they are to blame for our failing health care system and for our economy as well thanks to conservative news media outlets.

Political Science Professor at the University of Washington, Luis Fraga states

Public policy is the primary way in which Americans have always demonstrated their commitment to each other.

Unfortunately, our commitments to each other are increasingly commitments of hate and hostility, especially targeted against some of our most vulnerable members of society. Hate is not only becoming a normalized part of our political dialogue at all levels of government, but it is now increasingly becoming public policy as well.

However, this bill is also highly hypocritical from a financial perspective. Washington State is one of the few states that does not have a state income tax. So, the largest portion of individual taxes paid (as opposed to business taxes) are paid for through sales taxes and fees on government services. This means that undocumented residents pay sales taxes just as much as anybody else. These taxes go towards funding higher education, among other things. If Senate Bill 5828 is successful this means that undocumented state residents will be denied the benefit of the taxes for which they contribute to. Perhaps Represented Benton would be willing to amend our tax system to exempt undocumented state residents from paying sales taxes too, just like we except non-state residents from Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho who shop here!

Majority of House’s Black Legislators Oppose Tax Cuts for Wealthy–and the Tax Bill



A nearly 60 percent majority of the black caucus in Congress voted against President Obama’s Republican-oriented, compromised tax bill, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

Their website put it this way:

“We are headed towards fiscal disaster.”
— Rep. Bobby Scott, 12.17.10

“Obamanomics is more like Reaganomics.”
— Rep. Jessee Jackson, Jr. 12.10.10

“This measure does not create a single job or stimulate the economy in any way.”
— House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, 12.16.10

24 members of the CBC voted against Pres. Obama’s tax deal with the Republicans. Many cited the huge price tag. The bill will cost 900 billion dollars. More than the Stimulus bill, more than TARP. Other members felt the President should have and could have secured a better deal with the other side and that the legislation sets the Democrats up to be confronted with massive spending cuts to social programs over the next two years.

Jim Clyburn’s full statement was thus:

While I am pleased that the tax package approved by the House tonight extends important tax cuts to middle-income families and unemployment insurance for millions of Americans, adding $25 billion to the deficit to give a major tax benefit to the estates of the richest 6,600 families in America made it impossible for me to vote for the final package. This measure does not create a single job or stimulate the economy in any way. I hope that as we move forward and our economy continues to recover, we will restore some fairness to the tax code and reduce the burden we are putting on future generations.

A very clear indication of the political independence of the representatives of Black America in Congress–and probably of whom President Obama’s and Congress’s tax compromise is skewed toward.

Mapping Slavery’s Extent: 1860 Demographic Map



Susan Schulten, University of Denver history professor, has an interesting piece in the New York Times (online) on the last map prepared of the U.S. enslaved population (1860). Here is a small version of the map:

This map was prepared by the Coastal Survey from 1860 census data, and the source is “Map Courtesy of Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.” You can see Schulten’s very useful interactive and larger-annotated map here. This should be useful for classes dealing with the background and demography of slavery just at the beginning of the Civil War.

Schulten makes some interesting points about the map:

The map reaffirmed the belief of many in the Union that secession was driven not by a notion of “state rights,” but by the defense of a labor system. . . . the map measured each state’s slave population, and contemporaries would have immediately noticed that this corresponded closely to the order of secession. South Carolina, which led the rebellion, was one of two states which enslaved a majority of its population. . . . the map [also] illustrated the degree to which entire regions—like eastern Tennessee and western Virginia—were virtually devoid of slavery, and thus potential sources of resistance to secession.

President Abraham Lincoln loved the map (as did many in the Union’s public) and apparently used it in his own planning and thinking about the Civil War. It likely supported his

belief that secession was animated by a minority and could be reversed if Southern Unionists were given sufficient time and support. . . . The map gave a clear picture of what the Union was up against, and allowed Northerners to follow the progress of the war and the liberation of slave populations.

She points out that this map enabled Lincoln to focus on a key feature of the secessionist states—their slavery system of labor. For the views of those enslaved in this system of labor see the first part of this book.

Mexican Immigrants Portrayed as Multiplying “Rats”–White Official



The Tennessee report has discussed the comments of a Tennessee state representative thus:

Rep. Curry Todd remarked during a Fiscal Review Committee presentation this week that the idea of government-funded care for pregnant women [Mexican immigrants] who cannot prove they have United States government permission to be in this country struck him as not unlike inviting a rat infestation. The Collierville Republican made the comments after asking CoverKids program managers whether the state checks the citizenship status of care recipients. . . . [They] responded that CoverKids doesn’t provide medical coverage to pregnant women, but it does offer “unborn coverage …. ”Rep. Todd responded: “Well, they can go out there like rats and multiply, then, I guess.”

These comments have a strong resonance with aspects of old European and US white-racist framing of “undesirable” peoples seen as not white, and as vermin. There is the famous and viciously anti-Semitic film, The Eternal Jew (1940, Der ewige Jude in German), which was made under the control of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels and directed by Fritz Hippler.

One summary of the film notes that early shots in it show

…a pack of rats emerging from a sewer, juxtaposed with a crowd of Jews in a bustling street of a Polish city. . . . The narration says that, as rats are the vermin of the animal kingdom, Jews are the vermin of the human race and similarly spread disease and corruption. Unlike rats, however, the narrator continues, Jews have the uncanny ability to change their appearance and blend into their “human hosts.”

Vicious vermin imagery has also been applied to African Americans and numerous other Americans of color. Now immigrants of color are being aggressively targeted nationally in much the same way. Have some of our white legislators kept such racist imagery and language deeply in their racist toolkits, to apply as needed to Americans of color they are hostile to when considering government aid programs? Would this legislator have said this so assertively about poor white folks in his state?

Racism in Canada: Hostility to Asian (Tamil) Refugees



Imagine … you risk life and limb to cross the Pacific in a freighter. Eventually you dock at Vancouver Island in British Columbia. You claim refugee status with the hope of starting a new life. You are a Sri Lankan national of Tamil origin.IMG_5509
Creative Commons License photo credit: un_owen

Will a purported illustrious Canadian empathy greet you? Will Canadians’ celebrated sense of compassion with the stranger at their shores define your arrival? Or will the veil on Canadian intolerance and racism be lifted?

While the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) commend the “exemplary” work of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) in coordinating your arrival and reception, some determined politicians and vocal citizens demand you be arbitrarily refused the right to land; a claim paradoxically being made by Canadians, whose ancestors never asked the Algonquin, Six Nations, or Cree for immigration forms when they first arrived on Canadian shores. Some ‘nice folks’ think you should be given food [long pause] and sent back from where you came. Others believe your freighter should have been intercepted on the high seas and diverted to somewhere in South Asia. There is even annoyance that Canada’s Constitution guarantees you the right to ‘life, liberty and security.’ There is resentment towards you because Canada has its own problems, including appalling conditions on native reserves and homeless people on the streets of major cities. We need to deal with them first. Disregard the fact that government policy, racism, poor-bashing, and apathy are root causes of these social problems.

Are such reactions to your arrival due to the fact that you are not white? No, of course not! But look more closely… racism is seamlessly veiled behind rhetoric concerning refugees “jumping the queue” and talk of “freeloaders.” As Stephen Hume points out in a recent Vancouver Sun article, “Raise this uncomfortable theory and a din of sanctimonious denial rises. However, why the fuss over a few Tamils compared with larger numbers of asylum-seekers from Russia or Hungary or the United States? Why aren’t these asylum-seekers subjected to similar vituperation as queue-jumpers?”

Perhaps Matthew Claxton, a Canadian reporter for the Langley Advance explains best the reason for the unenthusiastic reaction to your arrival. He writes: “I’m having a hard time imagining a boat of English-speaking white Irish-Catholics [from Northern Ireland] getting the same vicious reception that the Tamils have received since they arrived….”. Claxton’s contrast of your plight to imaginary boat people from Northern Ireland is not accidental. Your arrival on the freighter, along with the other 491 Sri Lankan nationals of Tamil origin, is met with concerns that some of you might be terrorists. Would similar anxieties arise over determining who among the Irish-Catholic boat people is an IRA bomber, an IRA supporter, or who is a bystander or accomplice out of fear?

Whatever your hypothetical answer to this question, it is essential to concede that it is not a crime to seek asylum. In fact, when a person arrives at a Canadian port of entry, s/he is entitled to make an application for refugee status. Once the person is in Canadian waters, they cannot legally be turned back. Moreover, labelling Tamil asylum seekers as “terrorists” before they have an opportunity to make their case is unacceptable, especially given that Canadian and international law requires that refugees have access to individual and unbiased determination of their claims.

Wanda Yamamoto, Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) President, recently explained that “[o]ver the years Canada has saved the lives of thousands of Tamils fleeing persecution, by providing access to a fair and independent refugee system. Whether they arrive by plane, foot or boat, people seeking refuge from human rights abuses have a right to an individual hearing on the reasons why they fled—a right recently reaffirmed by [Canadian] Parliament”.

“Taking to the seas in a boat like this is very risky,” said David Poopalapillai, National Spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress . “We can only imagine that the people on board must have been very desperate to undertake such a dangerous voyage. We hope that our fellow Canadians will listen sympathetically to their stories and will support the government’s fair application of the law.”

We hope so too!

Tessa M. Blaikie is a sociology honours students at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

Guatemala: New Research on Ethical Violations by White Researchers

Susan Reverby, a Wellesley College professor, recently discovered records that reveal a two-year study designed by white researchers and supported by the U.S. government was conducted in which people in Guatemala were intentionally infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

This STD study conducted from 1946-48, health researchers from the United States and Guatemala intentionally infected Guatemalan sex workers, prisoners, soldiers, and hospitalized psychiatric patients with gonorrhea, chancroid, and syphilis.  Reverby’s student prompted the U.S. Department of Health & Human services to release this information about the study.  It is officially referred to as “The 1946 STD inoculation study.”   And in an email statement, Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – the current version of the institution that originally ran the study – said this:

The 1946 STD inoculation study should never have happened.  We are committed to the respect and safety of research participants.  In this spirit, the U.S. government will convene an international group of experts to review and report on the most effective methods to ensure that all human medical research conducted around the globe today meets rigorous ethical standards and how training of researchers will ensure such abuses do not occur.  If you have questions or comments regarding ethical human research and this study, please send them to 1946Study@cdc.gov.

This renewed commitment to ethical research by Dr. Frieden is an important one but may fail to persuade skeptical listeners familiar with the history of other ethical violations.

The fact is that the researcher who discovered the Guatemalan study made this discovery in the archived papers of Dr. John Cutler, a U.S. public health researcher who was also involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study.  Cutler was white and all the “participants” in the study were African American men.   While the Tuskegee study design did not intentionally infect subjects with syphilis (a common misunderstanding), the researchers violated medical and research ethics by withholding treatment – a simple shot of penicillin – that would have effectively cured the disease.   Further, the men in the study were never told that they were being used as research subjects.   The combination of these two facts (withholding medical treatment that would have cured the disease, and not telling them they were research subjects) are used as textbook examples of ethical violations in research.   The additional, and some could argue, central fact that these were white researchers violating the human rights of black subjects is an ethical violation that continues to reverberate today in a variety of ways.    (For further research on Tuskegee, see James H. Jones’ classic text, Bad Blood and the more recent, and broader in scope, Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington.)

The reality is that the actions of Cutler, in Tuskegee and Guatemala, were not the isolated actions of a “bad apple” working outside the aegis of the CDC (and its predecessor organization, the U.S. Public Health Service).   He was a well-respected M.D. and public health researcher who defended his involvement in the Tuskegee study until his death in 2003.  (For video footage of Cutler defending Tuskegee on camera, be sure to see the documentary The Deadly Deception, which also includes interviews with a handful of the survivors of the study.)

Both the studies designed by Cutler, in Guatemala and in Tuskegee, Alabama, were premised on several notions that remain with us today.  First, is the notion that the pursuit of “scientific knowledge” is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, followed closely by the idea that pursuing this goal justifies almost any means necessary to achieve it.  Still with us, too, is the idea that white researchers are somehow entitled to the biological “resource” of others.   As a society, we continue to subscribe to the idea that there are some groups of people who, because they are less powerful, it’s okay to conduct research on them.   Perhaps the key idea underpinning Cutler’s research was that the “course of the disease” of syphilis would be different in blacks (or Guatemalans) than in whites.  Today, many continue to cling to facile notions of racial differences in biology, while research consistently show these are insignificant.  These ideas, taken together, share much in common with the worldview of the doctors that Robert Jay Lifton describes in his book, Nazi Doctors, about the physicians who practiced medical experimentation on Jews held in concentration camps.    In an interview with Cutler, James H. Jones asked him whether he saw any similarity between his study at Tuskegee and the experimentation in the death camps.  Cutler, looking incredulous and wounded, replied, “But they were Nazis!”

When the panel Frieden is convening comes together, they would do well to not only review the historical legacy of racism in public health, but keep in mind the way these ideas continue to permeate public health research today.