The Black Panthers Versus the Medical Industry

An Interview with Alondra Nelson

Black Panther Party health clinic / ProfessorofTruth

Prevailing narratives of the Black Panther Party have focused almost exclusively on its militant advocacy. In Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Alondra Nelson documents a less familiar aspect of the Party’s history: its health care activism. Editorial assistant Gina Mitchell asks Nelson how concern over health care emerged from the Party’s ideals of self-defense, its campaign to combat sickle cell anemia, and the significance of health care for contemporary black politics.

Gina Mitchell: What sparked your interest in the health activism of the Black Panther Party?

Alondra Nelson: The book began as something of a research detour! I was interested in the hurdles African American communities faced in organizing around the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This prompted me to explore how blacks had collectively responded to health crises and medical issues in the past, specifically in the 1970s—the decade immediately preceding the emergence of HIV/AIDS. And this led me to rudimentary details—passing mention, really—of the Black Panther Party and its health activism. More importantly, this initial research impressed upon me how little work had been done on this aspect of the organization’s activities.

GM: Why hasn’t this topic been examined until now?

AN: The Black Panthers’ health activism has gone mostly unnoticed due to a failure of our collective memory. We tend to remember the Black Panther Party through iconography—the symbol of the black panther borrowed from civil rights activists in Alabama and other idiosyncratic political art; the graphic identity the organization established with its newspaper, The Black Panther; and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture. Compared to this, the Party’s politics of health and race is a more ephemeral legacy. Across the political spectrum, a one-dimensional characterization of the Black Panther Party has persisted: both the demonization and criminalization of the Party by forces on the Right and the valorization of the Party’s “radical chic” and militancy by well-meaning supporters on the Left.

We’ve also had a failure of imagination regarding responses to medical discrimination. The basic narrative emphasizing the mistreatment of minority communities by the medical sector—eugenics programs in North Carolina and elsewhere, the Tuskegee syphilis study, etc.—and these groups’ resultant distrust of medicine is easy to grasp. The counter-narrative that highlights how blacks, the poor, and others actively resisted medical discrimination complicates this story--perhaps it has been easier just to disregard or forget about it. The Party was concerned not only to catalog horrendous and enduring medical discrimination, but also to challenge it. Adding accounts of agency and empowerment through health activism to our conversations about race and health in the U.S. can help in a small way to transform apprehension into engagement.

GM: How did health activism emerge from the Panther’s platform of armed self-defense?

AN: For the BPP, originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the protection of black communities from police brutality was a founding and primary aim. The Party’s health activism emerged in part as an organizational response to the toll that its campaign to “police the police” took on activists and local communities. As an expression of this, many of the health clinics were named for Party members who had died, such as the Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter People’s Free Medical Clinic in South Central Los Angeles. (Carter had died in an armed confrontation with the US Organization, a rival black-nationalist group, at UCLA.)

We might also think of the Party as engaged in medical self-defense. Typically, health activism and advocacy refer to efforts to gain access to medicine and health-care resources, to obtain some good or service or research outcome. For disadvantaged groups, however, health activism also often includes the safeguarding of individuals and communities when medicine is used for purposes of surveillance or social control. I write, for example, about a collaboration between physicians, medical researchers, and criminal justice authorities in the early 1970s that deeply worried BPP head Huey P. Newton. The proposed research included experimental neurosurgery based upon the dubious hypothesis that brain pathology in blacks and Latinos was the cause of that era’s violence. The Black Panthers denounced this theory as biologically determinist and racially essentialist; and they worked with other activists to throw a wrench into plans for the research center.

For the Black Panther Party, sickle cell was a vehicle to draw attention to racial and economic inequities.

GM: Why did the Party come to concentrate its health-care efforts around sickle cell anemia? What did they accomplish?

There was an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1970 that exposed disparities in the amount of federal research funding for various genetic diseases. Its author identified a tenfold difference between federal funding for research on genetic diseases that predominate among persons of European ancestry and monies for research on sickle cell anemia, a disease that is predominant among people of African descent. The article ended with a call for this disparity to be bridged and for greater attention to be paid to sickle cell. Many took up this charge, including the Black Panthers, who paraphrased the findings of this article in its newspaper, as well as black philanthropies and politicians. In the context of the black power era, this funding disparity became a powerful symbol of racial inequality.

GM: Why didn’t the Panthers commend the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act of 1972?

AN: This law, signed by President Nixon, increased federal spending on the research and prevention of the disease from less than $100,000 to more than $1 million. The state’s attention to black health issues after years of neglect was a victory for the Black Panthers. However, though they won this health care battle by bringing awareness to the disease and compelling the state to dedicate resources to study it, they lost the ideological war. For the Party, sickle cell was a vehicle to draw attention to racial and economic inequities. By providing funding but tossing aside the Panther’s political framing, the Nixon administration diminished the Black Panthers’ ability to link the disease to broader issues of inequality.

GM: Central to the Panthers’ health-care ideology was an acute skepticism of medical discourse. This stemmed, in part, from an awareness of how the politics of health and disease could compound the stigmatization, criminalization, and control of underprivileged populations. I’m wondering if we may be seeing some of this in the backlash against the Occupy Wall Street protests, where rhetoric of public “health and safety” has been used to defend the clearing of protest sites across the country.

AN: This is a great question. The rhetoric of “health and safety” has been used quite a bit as a criticism of the Occupy movement, most recently when the authorities cleared the Boston encampment. There’s a more direct parallel to Black Panther health activism. In Chicago in the early 1970s, the city’s public health board used red tape to try to shut down that BPP chapter’s clinic. (This was after the chapter’s headquarters and clinic had been destroyed by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI in the course of the assassination of Fred Hampton). Public health representatives tried to compel the Panthers to get a city license for the People’s Free Medical Clinic; they tried to send inspectors to examine the facilities. When the Party refused they took them to court. Of course, public health and safety are real and very important concerns. But they should also be understood as the rhetoric of a “softer” kind of state power in both the case of the BPP and the Occupy movement. It’s not exactly Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine,” but health crises and epidemics are moments when the normal rules do not apply, when state and public health authorities can compel citizens to do things under the banner of the wellbeing of the greater community.

GM: Do you think health activism should be a central concern in contemporary black politics? What are the most pressing issues? What kinds of mobilizations are taking place around these issues and what obstacles do they face?

AN: I do believe it should be a central concern. In fact, although we do not fully appreciate it as much as we should, health activism has always been a part of African Americans’ civil rights and freedom struggles—from Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Health politics is inherent to black politics.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is the staggeringly high rate of HIV/AIDS in black communities, especially among women. As the political scientist Cathy Cohen and others have described, social and Christian conservatism among African Americans has been an obstacle to robust mobilization around AIDS. But the civil rights movement teaches us that black churches are also a crucial resource for social engagement in black communities. The inspiring work of The Balm in Gilead is leading the way.

The Black Panthers also left a vital legacy. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, ex-Panther Malik Rahim helped restore health care services in New Orleans by drawing on skills accumulated during his time in the Party. He co-founded the Common Ground medical clinic in New Orleans and credits his time as a Panther as serving as a model for this health work.

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About the Author

Alondra Nelson is Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author, most recently, of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.

Gina Mitchell is Editorial Assistant at Boston Review.

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