New York City

NYC turns its attention to medical racism

After a Black woman died after giving birth, renewed interest in tackling longstanding racial disparities.

Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn.

Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn. New York City Health + Hospitals/Woodhull

On July 3, Sha-asia Washington died after giving birth at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, making her one of several Black women in New York City whose deaths this year have been attributed to childbirth complications.

On Thursday, protesters gathered outside of the Woodhull Hospital to draw attention to Washington’s death, which has sparked renewed outrage over the racial disparities in maternal health care in the city. An online petition was also launched shortly after Washington died, demanding that the state to require hospitals to report detailed accounts of maternal deaths and injuries and stillbirths as well as the racial breakdown of these patients.

NYC Health + Hospitals, the public health system which manages Woodhull Hospital, expressed condolences for the “unspeakable pain” caused by Washington’s death while acknowledging the underlying racial disparities. “While all maternal mortality is tragic, we are too well aware that pregnant women of color die at much higher rates, and we are particularly disheartened when such a death occurs on our watch, no matter the cause,” Health + Hospitals said in a statement on Thursday. “We are committed to addressing this unacceptable disparity and continue in our steadfast pursuit to expand access to care, eliminate race-based health care gaps and prevent such tragedies.”

Black women are eight times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women in the city, according to city statistics, which is higher than the national breakdown. “There’s no reason America should have the statistics of a third world country when it comes to black and brown birthing bodies,” Tracie Collins, CEO and founder of National Black Doulas Association, told Rolling Stone this month. “There’s just no reason for that.”

However, maternal health care isn’t the only example of major discrepancies when it comes to race and medical care in the city. During the height of the city’s COVID-19 outbreak in April, Black and Latino residents were dying at twice the rate of white and Asian residents. 

Enslaved Black people had frequently been used for medical experiments in the U.S., especially women, as it was a common belief that they experienced less pain than white people do. As far back as the 1800s. Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the “father of modern gynecology,”performed experiments on enslaved black women without their consent and without using anesthesia. Sims had a statue in his honor in East Harlem up until 2018, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had it removed

The National Association for Advancement of Colored People brought attention to medical racism, not just in the city but in the country, when it called for an investigation of the Harlem Hospital, in 1913. However, it wasn’t until 1922 that the NAACP managed to get then-New York City Mayor James Hylan to commission an investigation into the hospital. The report found gruesome examples of the mistreatment of primarily African American patients, including the account of a mother who found maggots in the open wounds of her 11-year-old son, who died while at the hospital. 

The NAACP hoped the report would spur the hiring of more diverse doctors who would not neglect its patients and recommended that the hospital hire more Black physicians. However, this did not fix the underlying issue, such as the racist ideologies, including the notion that Black people have less sensitive nervous systems and that expectant Black mothers are less prudent about their health, that dictate how Black patients should be treated. 

Other racist beliefs about Black health have continued to permeate throughout the nation’s medical communities. As recently as 2016, a survey found that half of white respondents that were attending medical school held false beliefs about the biological differences among Black and white patients, such as the notion that Black people have thicker skin than white people.

In 2015, Dr. Mary T. Bassett, then New York City’s health commissioner, acknowledged that medical racism and the inequalities that often face Black patients is a major issue and one that needs to properly be contended with. “Physicians, nurses, and public health professionals witness such inequities daily: certain groups consistently have much higher rates of premature, preventable death and poorer health throughout their lives,” Bassett wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Yet even as research on health disparities has helped to document persistent gaps in morbidity and mortality between racial and ethnic groups, there is often a reluctance to address the role of racism in driving these gaps.”

Bassett suggested that without having an ongoing public dialogue that confronts the undercurrents of racism within medicine, it will be difficult for things to change.