Earlier this month, professor Vanessa Grubbs, M.D. visited Seattle, Wash., on the promotional tour for her new book, “Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers: A Kidney Doctor’s Search for the Perfect Match.” Grubbs details the romance with her now-husband, Robert, and his life-threatening battle with kidney failure. The book uses their courtship, they are both Black, to illustrate how racial bias prohibits Black people from getting equal access to life-saving organ transplants.
During the question-and-answer session, the doctor was asked to relate “Interlaced Fingers” to previous scholarship on medical racism such as the work of Harriet A. Washington and Rebecca Skloot, who both documented centuries of deliberate exploitation of Black bodies.
Gingerly, Grubbs told the mostly white onlookers that witnessing her husband’s ordeal radically shifted her understanding of how Black patients experience health care. She referenced her 2007 report, “Good For The Harvest, Bad For The Planting” which provides “a systemic explanation” for why Blacks, like Robert, “who are one in three of the candidates awaiting a kidney transplant, receive only one in five of donated kidneys.” She contrasted this to whites, who represent “a third of the kidney transplant waiting list, but receive every other donated kidney.” White patients also enjoy half the wait time of Black patients in need of a transplant.
Statistics like this in the organ transplant industry bring to light the historic and current racism Blacks face in receiving equal medical treatment in America.
Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey was the executive producer and star of the HBO drama, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The film, based on the book of the same title, is Skloot’s 2010 bestseller, which explains how white health officials at Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University stole tissue samples from a Black cancer patient, Lacks, and used her genetic material to make countless advances in medical science.
Providing context for the exploitation of Lacks, Skloot incorporates the history of the white-dominated medical industry’s relationship to Black citizens. This includes exposing celebrated scientists like French surgeon and Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, who pioneered early 20th-century ideas on transplanting organs. Skloot writes that Carrel “praised Hitler” and “was a eugenicist: organ transplantation and life extension were ways to preserve what he saw as the superior white race, which he believed was being polluted by less intelligent and inferior stock, namely the poor, uneducated and nonwhite.”
Washington’s 2006 masterpiece, “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” reveals that racist health professionals like Carrel saturated the U.S. medical industry at one point in history and, to an extent, still do to this day.
In fact, Washington begins with a conversation between herself and a nephrologist, a kidney doctor. When Washington struggled to accept the history and scope of medical abuse against Black people, her colleague looked at her as if she were “not too bright and minced no words. ‘Girl, Black people don’t get organs; they give organs.’”
The remainder of Washington’s work unearths how, before and after death, Black people have had organs and other body parts stolen by the white-dominated medical industry. After describing the lucrative industry and longstanding practice of harvesting Black corpses for medical research, she pivots to the organ transplant enterprise. Washington writes, “The troubling disproportionate prevalence of Black body parts such as organs, corneas and other tissues is suggestive that Blacks also make up a greatly disproportionate number of the entire bodies that are used in research,” research that infrequently benefits Black people like Henrietta Lacks.
In Seattle, Grubbs attributed these disparities to conscious and unconscious bias that require policy changes and training to help health care professionals practice medicine in a socially just manner. This analysis may, however, fall short of curing the bias of medical professionals and the industry itself.
Historian Daina Ramey Berry’s 2017 gem, “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation,” makes whites’ willful consumption of Black bodies a central theme and explains how anti-Blackness and the theft of Black organs became a normalized part of our vocabulary.
Berry writes that in 1763, an African-American male became one of the first recorded cases of a dissection in the colonial territory. “This marked the beginning of medical education, particularly the dissection of the dead. It also spurred the clandestine business of sending bodies and body parts to physicians and colleges, creating a traffic in human remains that still exists today in the form of an underground organ trade.
Sugarcoating centuries of white pathology masquerading as medical science maintains racism and is a central theme of John Hoberman’s 2012 book, “Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism.” He too resists the pattern of ignoring or downplaying centuries of racists wearing nurse’s caps and stethoscopes. Hoberman writes that many recoil at “the charge that Blacks suffer disproportionate health problems because racism taints American medicine. Doctors and nurses are among the least likely candidates upon whom to pin the label of bigotry.” Because of generations of racist doctors and nurses, Hoberman writes, “Mainstream medicine devised racial interpretations that have been applied to every organ system of the human body.”
Tellingly, near the end of her Seattle visit, Grubbs admitted that honestly addressing these issues “does get hard,” and that she often takes “flak” for illuminating how the medical industry fails Black patients. In a monumental display of courage and love, Grubbs donated a kidney to save then-boyfriend Robert. The two celebrated the 12-year anniversary of the surgery this past April and will enjoy a dozen years married next month. The bravery that helped Grubbs’s share a life-saving organ must also inspire us discuss and call out racism as the primary obstacle to Black health and prosperity.
Gus T. Renegade hosts “The Context of White Supremacy” radio program, a platform designed to dissect and counter racism. For nearly a decade, he has interviewed and studied authors, filmmakers and scholars from around the globe.