Alondra Nelson is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also holds an appointment in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is coeditor of Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life and Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision between DNA, Race, and History. Urban Cusp recently interviewed Alondra Nelson to discuss her new book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination. Read what she had to say about the Panthers’ health activism, scientific racism, why their strategies weren’t sustained, and contemporary health care issues.
Urban Cusp: What led you to decide on the Black Panther Party and medical discrimination as your point of focus?
Alondra Nelson: A lot of conversations about the social construction of race and ideas about where racialization was made. The history of scientific racism and ideas about Black bodies that have been created often in the name of science, health and healing. Because of my interest in the Civil Rights Movement, I started thinking that it could not be the case that Black people had nothing to say about the racism in science and medicine. I started reading books like Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid.
UC: What do you think a Black Panther-inspired health activism movement would look like in 2012?
AN: One way that the Panther health activism is still relevant is seen in the NY Times article Racial Bias Seen in Study of Lead Dust and Children about a class action suit against a Baltimore institute accused of exposing Black children to lead poisoning in a study in the 1990s that sought to explore the hazards of lead paint. The Black Panther Party had worked on this issue and it was something they were trying to eradicate 45 years ago. They saw themselves as protecting the Black community against dodgy experimentation. You imagine that a Black Panther health politics today would be a place where poor communities would be protected.
UC: How has researching the health activism of the Black Panther Party imprinted your views on contemporary health care policies?
AN: They were working in a coalition with other people who really saw health as a human right and who understood that the issue of health was the tipping point in how a society thought about its citizens. It has become a litmus test for what you envision as the good society – if that includes caring for the least of these and their physical bodies. The Black Panther Party wanted all people to have a safety net of health. They saw it as an intricate social issue and we need that now as health issues are become increasingly individualized. It posed health care as a question: what do we value and what bodies do we value? We’re still asking that question now.
UC: Why weren’t the social strategies of the Black Panther Party sustained throughout the decades?
AN: A couple of things. As we know, there was COINTELPRO and the Panthers activities were criminalized. The state at the local and federal level made it their focus to go after the Panthers in various ways. They infiltrated the organization. Think about people like Geronimo Pratt who were set up. There were conspiracies that they were turning Panthers against each other. These things in general prevented the Panthers from being sustained more generally, which also prevented their social programs from being sustained. Related to this, in places like Chicago, the public health authorities came after the Panthers. There was an effort to curve their social programs by trying to force them to get various state licenses, which went against what they were trying to do which was create this organic thing. It created a lot of red tape. Thirdly, it was the case of the institutionalization. Their breakfast program became the Head Start program. Their ideas were taken up by the state and institutionalized.