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Examining Persisting Racism in Science

By : Lucy Core, Mei Nathan & Mila Selmic

While we at MSWI knew that we wanted to dedicate a blog post towards celebrating Black History Month, we were conflicted about how to best remember the people and events stemming from the African diaspora. Should we highlight Black scientists whose achievements may not be remembered or who are currently leading in their fields? Should we open the conversation about science's role in perpetuating racism, both through research aimed to support the division of races and through the research's impact? We settled on the latter. To gain a fuller understanding of the achievements of Blacks and create a more inclusive future, we need to acknowledge what hardships Blacks had to unjustly overcome.


Scientific racism is pseudoscience. Today, the scientific community recognizes that no such empirical evidence exists to justify racial superiority. However, this was only a recent development with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), formally scientific racism in 1950.

Scientists, such as François Bernier, Carl Linnaeus, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, began trying to define races in the late 1600s to mid-1700s. In addition to basing these definitions on geographic locations, they also considered physiognomic traits, assessing a person's character or personality from their outer appearance. For instance, in Carl Linnaeus's 1767 twelfth edition of Systema Naturae, he described the "Europeanus" as gentle and governed by laws, whereas he labeled the "Africanus" as sly, lazy, and governed by caprice. This publication coincided with the American Revolution and the Enlightenment movement. Some historians argue that the idea of different races helped the colonists of European descent resolve the contradiction between natural rights to freedom and slavery.

Expanding upon the classification of humans, Franz Joseph Gall pioneered "cranioscopy" (later named "phrenology"), a pseudoscience that believed that the shape and measurement of bumps on the skull could predict mental traits. Many coupled this pseudoscience with Darwin's "On the Origin of Species” to tell a narrative of "Social Darwinism"- the idea that some races were more evolved than others and inequity was mere "survival of the fittest." More recently, there have been talks about intelligence with Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray's 1994 release of The Bell Curve that argued for racial difference in IQ. Although the majority of the scientific community denounces scientific racism, sadly it still pervades within social spheres. As up-and-coming scientists, we need to be educated about this dark history so as to not rationalize the same erroneous claims.


The problems surrounding racism in health remain largely unaddressed and understudied. However, it is clear that health inequities are seen in a variety of outcomes, such as infant mortality, heart disease, and cancer. These observations have been present for at least a century and are still pervasive in today’s society.

In particular, racism in healthcare settings negatively affects Black women. An important contributing factor to this discrimination is implicit biases, or unconscious beliefs and automatic associations driven by stereotypes that are made about a social group. Doctors and other healthcare professionals unknowingly may hold many implicit biases against Black women that subsequently can affect the quality of care that they receive. Common biases include that Black women are difficult to deal with, they are not knowledgeable about their bodies, they don’t have health insurance, and they have higher levels of pain tolerance. Going beyond prejudiced thoughts, studies have found that those who report having experienced racism show greater rates of illness.

Implicit bias, however, is not the only factor influencing poorer health outcomes of Black individuals. Racism is complex and operates at several levels beyond that of the individual. Structural racism, which refers to the social forces, institutions, ideologies, and processes that interact to reinforce inequities, also plays a major role. One such example is residential segregation, which still exists in many communities. Black individuals are more likely to live in areas with greater environmental pollutants, infectious agents, and other adverse conditions that subsequently increase their risk for disease.


The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic highlight this implicit racism in healthcare and science as the pandemic has disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minority groups. According to Epic Health Research Network, Black patients are more than twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than Caucasian patients. Just looking at this statistic, it could be easy to attribute this to the stereotype of “Black vulnerability,” a racist idea that Black people are intrinsically weaker. However, this fails to contextualize these higher rates of infection, which are likely linked to structural racism.

Gravlee describes that the detrimental effects of COVID-19 on Black communities are a direct result of ‘disease concentration and disease interaction’. Disease concentration refers to the idea that the environment in which one lives plays an important role in how likely one is to be exposed to COVID-19. For example, people with lower incomes, which disproportionately include racial minority groups, were “less likely to be able to work from home” during the pandemic, leading them to have far more potential to be exposed to the virus, whether that be at work, on public transportation, or any other population-dense areas (Gravlee).

In addition to environmental risks, there is a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and having more severe symptoms with the disease if one is battling other chronic illnesses at the same time, or if they are not able to easily and affordably access proper health care. According to a Harvard news article, “Blacks have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than other groups and Black children have a 500% higher death rate from asthma compared with White children” (Chan). In addition, the CDC compiled a list of underlying medical conditions that have been proven to increase the risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19, and this list includes heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and asthma among others, almost all of which are diseases that disproportionately affect Black people. The devastating effects that COVID-19 has had on racial minority groups are a direct result of a dysfunctional and implicitly racist health care system and society.

Racism is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that severely harms Black individuals. Our hope is that this post sheds light on some of the lesser-known ways in which Black individuals have been negatively affected in science and health so that we can work to create change to tackle and eliminate these pervasive issues. As an initiative, we want to go beyond recognizing these inequities that exist within the scientific community. We hope that we are fostering a community that confronts these challenges through workshops about diversity in science and honest dialogue about future solutions.



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