Is studying racial disparities in health care just another example of white supremacy run amok? A recently published investigative report suggests the answer is yes.
"'Health equity tourists': How white scholars are colonizing research on health disparities," reads the headline of the report, which appeared last week on the health care-focused website Stat. Such research is now "in vogue," writes national science correspondent Usha Lee McFarling, who appears to be white. "Journals are clamoring for it, the media is covering it, and the National Institutes of Health, after publicly apologizing for giving the field short shrift, recently announced it would unleash nearly $100 million for research on the topic."
Isn't that good? Not really. The heightened focus on racial health disparities has created "a gold rush mentality where researchers with little or no background or training in health equity research, often white and already well-funded, are rushing in to scoop up grants and publish papers," to the detriment of BIPOC researchers who are eager to push back against what they see as a form of colonialism.
"Medicine does that, they Columbus everything," said Monica McLemore, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who is pictured in the article wearing a shirt that reads "Educated & Blaccinated." She is concerned about the influx of white researchers interested in her field of study—reproductive health in marginalized communities—and what she describes as a concerted effort to "invisibilize the essential work of women of color."
One particularly "glaring example" cited in the report was the Journal of the American Medical Association's (JAMA) publication in August of a special issue focused on "racial and ethnic health disparities in medicine." Rather than being celebrated for highlighting these issues, the journal was denounced as "an illustration of the structural racism embedded in academic publishing" because none of the five research papers included in the special issue had a lead author who was black.
In response, McFarling writes, a JAMA spokesperson "said its editors do not consider the demographics of authors in selecting research papers," a meritocratic approach that critics argue "perpetuates long-standing inequities rather than addressing them." Like most fields involving higher education and government funding, health research is increasingly dominated by individuals (of all races) steeped in the language of liberal activism. As a result, there is a lot of anxiety to go around.
"People want to look like they're doing the work without doing the work," McLemore said, invoking a phrase often used to describe the need for white people to educate themselves about structural racism by reading the works of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, among others. Another black researcher complained about being asked to play "diversity officer" after a National Institutes of Health grant application asked her to include a plan for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Grievances abound, many of which have been subsumed into much of the American professional class. For example, McFarling describes "a refusal to take on, or even name, the issue at the heart of most health disparities: racism," a word that appears in fewer than 1 percent of articles published in major medical journals over the past three decades. Studies that examine "societal factors" such as racial bias but don't use the word "racism," or its "structural" or "institutional" or even "environmental" counterparts, are denounced as "potentially dangerous."
White researchers have been especially eager to show off their woke credentials by partnering with BIPOC researchers to study racism in health care. This had led to concerns about "tokenism," as minority researchers are sough out in an effort to "lend credibility" to a project, or their research is cited without credit by white authors. Some have called for "research reparations" to atone for racial disparities in funding and acceptance into leading medical journals.
The woke whites in the field are similarly aggrieved by accusations of Columbus-style colonialism and insist they are just following their anti-racist hearts into a new area of study. "A lot of people are motivated by good reasons," said white person Lance Gravlee, a medical anthropologist at the University of Florida. "They want to use their scientific skills to do something good." Earlier this year, Gravlee wrote a widely praised essay titled, "How Whiteness Works: JAMA and the Refusals of White Supremacy."
Many feel "gobsmacked" by the accusations but are making an effort to learn the appropriate language in which to respond. "To say that I'm not aware this is a terrible, racist country with terrible racist problems isn't true," said Pat Kelly, a white nursing professor and journal editor criticized for publishing a paper on reproductive justice for marginalized women. Unfortunately, the paper's lead author, Robin Evans-Agnew, is white. He has learned from the experience and vowed to "leave my white fragility at the doorstep" along with his "white colonial perspective and white colonial biases."
But Evans-Agnew refuses to beat himself up over it. "I'm not crying myself a river," he said.