Tuskegee Experiment: Human Canaries in the Coal Mine

Tuskegee - Human Canaries in the Coal Mine
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Around the time President Clinton apologized to the remaining black men (of over 600), who were used as human guinea pigs in the Tuskegee Experiment.  “To our African American citizens,” he said, “I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again. It is against everything our country stands for and what we must stand against is what it was.”

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This, unfortunately, angered many white people. I happened to be in Florida around the time, where the man on the street, when approached by a news anchor, spewed, “They’re always looking for hand outs!” I wonder what he would say today, knowing that many Floridians currently pride themselves on living in a mandate-free state.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study book

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is attorney, Fred Gray’s account of how the Tuskegee Experiment involved a clinical “study” to observe the effects of untreated syphilis on African-American men in Tuskegee, Alabama. These men were never informed that they were being enrolled in a study and that they were actually being denied treatment as part of the study.

Even when penicillin was found to effectively treat the condition about 15 years in, these men were never offered it. They were left to suffer and die without treatment. This went on for 40 years, ending in 1972, when a story about the study appeared in the news.

The reasons for the study, its duration, and the rationale behind using only black men are likely a bit more complicated than they seem at face value. However, I’d like to point out that all too many people are willing to narcissistically sweep the pain of others under the rug just to create a convenient narrative for themselves. They respond to phrases such as, “Black lives matter, ” with “All lives matter,” or, my favorite, “It’s not race, it’s class!” Of course let’s not forget women who took this stance over humane treatment toward blacks only to #MeToo a few weeks later.

I’ll take a moment here to say that if your first instinct is to criticize the movement, Black Lives Matter, stop. Until we discuss the 150+ year-old terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, no other discussion calling out other organizations with corporate ties will go anywhere.

Today, many people are demanding bodily autonomy and informed consent, while others believe that anyone who wants those things should be denied treatment by hospitals. The irony that Florida and Texas — states often associated with segregation to this day — are the states largely leading the charge on this is not lost on me.

Where would Jimmy Kimmel have stood during the Holocaust? Slavery? The Plague?

We can continue to ignore the depths of someone else’s pain. We can callously reduce someone else’s value over daring to protect themselves and their families. Just know that until we are all free, none of us are free. The pendulum can swing at any moment, and it just may hit you.

The audiobook of The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is a good listen in the garden albeit a horrifically tragic episode. The reader reminds me of Dave Chappelle for some reason. You may find certain segments where his reading gets a bit stiff easier to get through at roughly 1.13X speed. I listened to it twice and will probably do so again before the year is through.

Nonetheless, this is an important chapter in recent American history that is worth knowing more about. It is a cautionary tale for things to come, should we turn a blind eye to what these men had suffered.

Know about other human experiments that underscore the importance of informed consent? Let me know in the comments below!

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