This is part of a series on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. In their columns, members of the Penn community assess slavery, Penn’s relationship with it, and how it informs our understanding of race.day.
The history of the University of Pennsylvania is inextricably linked with that of the American slave trade. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported in 2018 that many of Penn’s first trustees and even its first provost were owners of enslaved people. Benjamin Rush, a prominent professor of chemistry and medicine in the 1700s, dissected the body of a 16-year-old black girl for educational purposes without any mention of her consent. As recently as the 1970s, Albert Kligman, dermatologist at Penn, conducted research on human subjects on incarcerated black men who included exposure to the carcinogenic components of Agent Orange. Many of these men were poorly literate.
Obviously, the institution is not in a position to go back in time to repair this history and the ripple effects that its actions have created. The question becomes: how does Penn – or any institution – approach this story and deal with the continuing damage (such as a lack of confidence and the glaring disparities in health and healthcare) that ‘she created? Penn and Penn Medicine owe it to the Philadelphia community to develop and maintain programs that candidly address the ways Penn has historically harmed his community.
Any discussion of how to deal with past transgressions must begin with an assessment of their impact. Each individual within a community has their own emotional relationship to this story. Some people feel betrayed and unable to trust the established institutions of our society. Others are shocked and angry, even furious, at the way their deceased family members have been treated. Yet some are saddened and feel dejected because they live in a system that has not historically valued the lives of people like them. Other people feel outraged, developing an unwavering determination to stay as healthy and prosperous as possible. The universal commonality is that these human rights violations are emotionally charged experiences passed down from generation to generation through the art of storytelling.
Penn must strive to positively change the stories shared between generations. Isolated statements reacting to current events are necessary but not sufficient to change the way communities share their families’ stories. Reaching out and sustaining a helping hand to begin correcting historical injustices can change these oral histories: it can begin with developing open and ongoing dialogues with surrounding communities. In essence, this would create a space for candidly revealing details of past injustices to the parties involved, providing a kind of âgroup therapyâ where the revelations may be surprising but provide a platform for building trust in the future. Conducting these sessions longitudinally would demonstrate a commitment to the community and a desire to forge a new relationship. In a world where most stories are written by media and PR professionals, community members should have as much power as possible to define their own story. Community members who have been affected deserve the opportunity to write and share their own story and experience of the ongoing trauma.
Large institutions like Penn can further demonstrate their commitment to healing the wounds of the past by providing longitudinal in-kind services to those most affected by their historical injustices. For banks, this could include setting up free accounts and offering basic financial planning services free of charge. For museums, this may involve creating open conversation tables where stolen objects and family heirlooms can be returned. At the very least, the wishes of the original owner can be expressed and incorporated into the treatment that the inheritance receives. For the University of Pennsylvania healthcare system, however, this may sound like providing cost-effective medical care and making priority appointments for descendants of Albert Kligman’s research subjects, members of the family of slaves belonging to the founding members of the institution, and those whose bodies were desecrated without consent for “educational purposes”.
To further strengthen the continued commitment to equity within institutions, the memorials, works of art and decorations that make up the location need to be assessed and revised to be more inclusive of the rainbow people who work and are served by this institution. In the same way that founders and presidents are commemorated with statues and portraits, the black and brown backs upon which institutions were built deserve equal commemoration.
Analogous to this process, institutions also have a responsibility to promote a workforce that walks the path of diversity and inclusion. A small place to start might be to have one-on-one conversations when staff make comments that seem to their colleagues rooted in racism, sexism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism. In addition to the institution-wide implicit bias training that many institutions have implemented, these conversations can help jetpack communities become a more tolerant and fairer society.
For example, as black medical students in the wards, we sometimes hear medical professionals espousing various misconceptions about black people. For example, a doctor explained that they always check that black patients are “clean” when preparing a patient for a procedure because of the lotion they are using, which causes “all the dirt on the outside to stick to them. “. They teach to check your alcohol wipes to “make sure they’re not dirty yet” when preparing black patients. Not only does this doctor teach that black patients are dirty, their analysis does not take into account that pigmented skin cells will always look “dirty” when placed on white tissue, as the company associates dirt to brown or black color. Plus, for a doctor who was trained and works in a forty percent black city and who has dedicated his career to helping others, why does he choose to remain so ignorant and critical of his patients’ cultural practices?
While these statements are blatantly racist, they alone are not enough to prove poor care for black patients. Therefore, this incident is not appropriate for an official report of discrimination. A centralized resource where such concerns can be flagged, not for punitive discipline but to foster open dialogue, would systematically fuel the pendulum of social change.
As President of Penn, Amy Gutmann declared in June 2020, âWe, as a country and as a community, must commit to finding better ways to understand and address systemic racism and the economic, educational, political and social inequalities that are closely related to it. We must work together to build more hope for the future. The work to mend community relationships must be nurtured by faculty and staff, who can forge long-term commitments, and supported by students who are visiting community members.