Talking About the Tuskegee Effect

Solutions Journalism Network

In the United States, Black citizens experience drastically shorter lifespans and higher infant and maternal mortality rates compared to white citizens. Rates of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are also highest in Black communities. Understanding the causes and effects of these statistics is intrinsically connected to the long history of medical experimentation on Black Americans. Journalist and medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington described this phenomenon as “medical apartheid” in her 2006 book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, and it has lasting effects on the contemporary medical system. The damage is far-reaching; cultural bias has formed on both sides, including from medical professionals. Over half of medical students still adhere to medical myths about Black patients’ pain tolerance, including false beliefs that Black patients have thicker skin, fewer nerve endings, or a tendency to exaggerate their pain levels. Over time, Black Americans' deeply traumatic experiences with doctors have become so widespread that it earned a name: the “Tuskegee Effect." Named after a decades-long study that included denying medical treatment to hundreds of Black men, the Tuskegee Effect refers to the feelings of suspicion and mistrust of the government and medical community experienced by some Black Americans. This collection explores solutions that leverage interpersonal connections between healthcare providers and patients to address the racial justice gap.