Five Minutes with Alondra Nelson

(cross-posted from Columbia College Today, Summer 2014)

Alondra Nelson (credit: Bruce Gilbert)

Alondra Nelson (credit: Bruce Gilbert)

Alondra Nelson is a professor of sociology and gender studies, and director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Raised in San Diego, she earned a B.A. in anthropology from UC San Diego and a Ph.D. in American studies from NYU. Her 2011 book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, was recognized with four scholarly awards.

 

What’s your specialty?

I work at the intersection of the sociology of race and/or ethnicity and the sociology of science. I went to graduate school at a time when a great deal of new scholarship was helping us to better understand how ideas about race (and justifications for racism) were drawn from the biological sciences and medicine — including books like Tuskegee’s Truths by Susan Reverby, which traced the notorious syphilis experiment, a scientific inquiry partly premised on spurious theories about fundamental differences between black bodies and white bodies, and Robert Proctor’s Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, which explored the way that medical research was used for ideological purposes in Hitler’s Germany. This new wave of scholarship highlighted moments in which science and technology were mobilized against marginalized groups. As someone also interested in African-American history, I was struck that a lot of this literature suggested a one-way street. It gave us a picture of race making “from above” — in science  and medicine — but offered little insight into how the communities detrimentally impacted by these ideas responded to them.

And that led you to the Black Panthers?

Yes. We often think about the Civil Rights Movement as being about access to schools and to lunch counters but it was also about access to medical care and medical facilities, and to nursing schools and medical education. The Black Panthers emerged in 1966 as an organization that was trying to curb police harassment, and violence and often deadly engagements with police came to be the way that we think most about them. But part of their story is also radical and fairly ambitious health care activism. I wrote about their sickle cell anemia campaign, which best I could discern is the only case of a grassroots genetic screening and counseling program in the United States. I also wrote about their challenge to a planned research center at UCLA that was gathering together researchers interested in studying the idea that there were biological causations for violence. In this instance, the Black Panthers were successful in working with a coalition of other activists, including the NAACP and the National Organization for Women, to block state funding to the center, so it never came to be. What’s interesting about this Black Panther story, surprisingly, is that it’s not a poignant postscript about the damage that was done to vulnerable communities by biomedical experimentation. Rather, it’s a powerful story that says, “we learned about this as it was happening, we understood what the stakes were and what the implications of this research was and we were able to stop it.”

What’s your current project?

I have a book coming out next year called The Social Life of DNA. It started as ethnographic research in 2003 when direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing companies were introduced in the U.S. Given the complicated history of genetic science, I was initially interested in whether these tests were contributing to consumers thinking about themselves in essentialist ways: Are we coming to think about our genes as our destiny, both for our health and for our identity? For me, that was a potentially dangerous thing. But what I found is that people were both more judicious than I would have thought and also more nuanced and  sophisticated. What became more interesting was the way that people navigated the different threads of information that can make up one’s identity: the tests, the family stories, the things written in the front of a bible, oral history, even the things you might feel about what you think your ancestry is.

What undergraduate courses do you teach?

A lecture course called “Post-Racial America?” It looks at facets of American life, such as the workforce, mass incarceration, urban and suburban living, the intersection of race and ethnicity with gender and class, and growing populations of people who call themselves multi-racials. As someone who is a post-Civil Rights Movement sociologist, I think many things have gotten better, some things have not changed and some things have gotten worse. So to pose that question every week — post-racial America? — makes students think with complexity about contemporary racial politics in the U.S.


What historical figure would you most like to meet?

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was a journalist, lay sociologist and an anti-lynching crusader as well as a woman leader working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there weren’t many well-known women leaders. It’s one thing to take the helm of an organization; it’s another to have unpopular opinions and to be disliked both because you’re operating outside of the realm of normative, polite womanhood and outside of the realm of status quo politics. And at the same time she was a mother, she was a grandmother, she was a wife. Ida B. Wells was able to accomplish things that most of us can only aspire to.

Interview: Alexis Tonti ’11 Arts

Posted in Body and Soul, BPP, Civil Rights Movement, Ida B. Wells, interviews, Social Life of DNA, Tuskegee | Tagged , | Leave a comment

After Obamacare

Americans of all hues expressed surprise when Barack Obama was elected four years ago (and again last year), with many candidly remarking that they never thought they would live to see the day when the United States would be led by a President of African descent.

As the Obama administration’s policy priorities took shape, many thought it equally unlikely that there would be significant healthcare reform during their lifetimes. Yet the first black US President would once again deliver the unexpected.

When President Obama finally spearheaded the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last summer — after the constitutionality of the law was upheld by the Supreme Court — his team successfully overcame strident partisan resistance from conservatives who had mounted a legal challenge to it. The Obama administration also prevailed against widespread skepticism, not only from the law’s detractors, but also from its supporters. For, very few were confident that a major transformation in American social welfare policy was possible given the failures of several prior presidents in this arena over the last century including, most recently, Bill Clinton, whose frustrated effort at healthcare reform was still fresh in public memory.

Undoubtedly, the new health policy offers crucial and tangible benefits. As the law’s full name makes clear, one of its fundamental accomplishments will be to protect patients from mistreatment by health insurance companies. For example, so-called “Obamacare” guards against arbitrary loss or denial of insurance coverage. The law also mandates that insurance companies use the largest portion of the money they earn toward actual medical benefits for patients, rather than corporate profit. And, thankfully, it is no longer lawful for that the fact of being a woman be deemed an inherent “medical condition” that justifies the imposition of higher fees than what a man pays.

As Obamacare is rolled out, improved access to medical services will be accomplished through a public-private regime that, on the one hand, extends federal healthcare support for the poor and the elderly and, on the other, expands for-profit insurance coverage for some. As a result, the numbers of underinsured and uninsured people in the US is expected to shrink from its current level of 50 million persons to about 20 million. There will be a salient reduction in human need and suffering.

But the arms of Obama’s care wrap around too few… MORE

 

Posted in health inequality, healthcare reform, sociology, Villa Gillet | Leave a comment

Originally posted on Madlawprofessor's Weblog:

NEW YORK, NY
Friday, November 9, 2012

Columbia University hosted a discussion on women’s issues in this year’s election and how those issues may be addressed during the upcoming Congress.

Panelists focused on women’s health, reproductive rights, marriage equality, poverty and political participation. They also considered what issues should be at the top of the feminist and LGBT political agenda and how these communities can best affect change in the new presidential administration.

Speakers included Professor and MSNBC host Melissa-Harris Perry and Columbia University Professor Patricia Williams along with Rebecca Traister, Salon.com Columnist and others.

To watch, go to:  

http://www.c-span.org/Events/Gender-Sexuality-the-2012-Elections/10737435772-1/

 

View original

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Sociology of Genealogy

I am thrilled to be working with the venerable Beacon Press on my next book, The Social Life of DNA. This book is a sociological look at genealogy (and so much more!). I am interested in why genetic genealogy has become so popular today and what has sustained our interest in root-seeking over generations.

In the piece below, written for Dominion of New York, I take the recent news that President Barack Obama is possibly descended on his European-American mother’s side from John Punch, “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history,” as an occasion to discuss the assumptions, values and norms about belonging and American identity that underlie our preoccupation with our roots.  Let me know what you think.

__________

OBAMA IS A DESCENDENT OF NEFERTITI AND CONFUCIUS TOO

There was breaking news recently in the lively world of presidential genealogy. Barack Obama–who is regarded as an inauthentic African-American by some because his late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham, was a white woman and his father’s ancestry traced to Kenya rather than Kentucky or the Carolinas–was suggested to be descended on his maternal side from John Punch, a black man.

Researchers at Ancestry.com, the online root-seeking company, derived Obama’s relationship to Punch using a combination of standard genealogical research and Y-chromosome genetic analysis. (Y-DNA is passed essentially unchanged from fathers to sons to grandsons to great-grandsons, etc.) The timing of this announcement could not be better for the Provo, Utah company that just reported booming fourth quarter profits and is rumored to be seeking a buyer.

An indentured servant in 17th century Virginia, Punch would earn the lamentable designation of “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history” when he was reduced to chattel as punishment for his attempt to escape servitude. Punch, like Obama the elder, was an African; tragically, what makes Punch “African-American” is his slave status. With rebellious, freedom-loving roots firmly planted in the New World, our nation’s first president of African descent —Punch’s 11th great grandson–may just be “black enough” after all.

News of POTUS’s connection to Punch, reported in The New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, follows a now established pattern of presidential genealogy exposés that partly rely upon the paradox of opposing political ideology and shared kinship. So, in 2010 we learned, courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, that then Massachusetts senator-elect Scott Brown was the President’s tenth cousin. As a Los Angeles Times reporter put it, “[d]espite the political chasm that separates the two men… Obama and Brown have at least one solid family link.”

Read more at Dominion of New York

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Black Panther Party

This month marks the 42nd anniversary of the revelation of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

On July 25, 1972, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller disclosed in the New York Times that the United States Public Health Service had been conducting a clinical experiment on black men in Macon County, Alabama. Beginning 1932, these close to 400 share-croppers were left untreated for the disease that can decimate the body in its late stages, despite the fact that antibiotic treatment had been available for decades. Heller wrote: “For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service has conducted a study in which human guinea pigs, not given proper treatment, have died of syphilis and its side effects.”

The Tuskegee tragedy (recently described in a stellar book by Susan Reverby) has come to exemplify health inequality and racial discrimination in medicine. Numerous studies  show that public awareness of the syphilis study has had a residual, negative impact on healthcare practices. Blacks, in particular, have developed a strong distrust of mainstream medicine and clinical research that is attributed to past abuses–and, especially this exploitative study.

Harriet Washington’s award-winning book Medical Apartheid was an urgent reminder that African Americans’ apprehensions about biomedicine were both abiding and perfectly warranted. In other words, if we take a longer historical view, the Tuskegee study is an important symbol, but it was not the first or even the most appalling instance of medical discrimination. As Washington notes, such practices have extended “from the colonial era to the present.”

The Black Panthers’ foray into health politics also suggests to us that we need to rethink how important “the shadow of Tuskegee” was in shaping black consciousness about the healthcare sector. As I describe in Body and Soul, the Party’s activism began several years before Tuskegee became a national scandal. In these preceding years, the Black Panthers, drawing on a tradition of African American health activism, identified and condemned the issues that are now attributed to the the public revelation of the syphilis study. They argued that:

  • the healthcare needs of blacks were neglected–to the point that a systematic plan of racial genocide was feared (as this provocative and somewhat hyperbolic statement below from an August 1972 issue of its newspaper shows)
  • the poor were relegated to pitiable healthcare services at the hands of callous, inexperienced doctors
  • African Americans were treated as guinea pigs in biomedical encounters

Today, we should recall the sacrifice of the 399 poor black men and their families who were exploited by medical researchers–American citizens abused by agents of their own state. As former President Clinton said in his national apology to these men: “It was a time when our nation failed to live up to its ideals, when our nation broke the trust with our people that is the very foundation of our democracy… today America does remember the hundreds of men used in research without their knowledge and consent. We remember them and their family members. Men who were poor and African American, without resources and with few alternatives, they believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed.”

Tuskegee embodied the longstanding fears and inequalities that had been given voice, shape and torque by the Black Panther Party and prior health activists. If these apprehensions are more historically deep-seated than commonly believed, what similarly intensive solutions are necessary to achieve health access and equality? How can our responses to the crisis in racial health disparities turn the tide of mistrust?

Posted in Body and Soul, BPP, citizenship contradictions, Tuskegee | 7 Comments

Doing Good Works: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Troy Duster

Troy Duster; Ida B. Wells-Barnett

I had the great honor of interviewing the trailblazing sociologist Troy Duster for Public Culture. Our conversation covers much of Duster’s extraordinary life trajectory, from his childhood on the South Side of Chicago, to his interactions with notable scholars, including Erving Goffman, and with prominent historical figures such as Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. We speak as well about Duster’s grandmother, the brave and fiery journalist-activist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and the influence that her life’s example might have had on his own career.

This month marks what would have been Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s 150th birthday. (She was born into slavery on July 16, 1862). The late activist’s contributions were not always appreciated by her peers–and, sometimes, they went unacknowledged or were even thwarted. In her stellar biography of Wells-Barnett, historian Mia Bay notes that as quiet as it was kept by some, much of the “early twentieth-century civil rights struggle” nevertheless used “strategies pioneered by Wells.”

In this excerpt of our conversation, Duster notes one legacy left to him by his grandmother–his awareness of how activism, intellectual or otherwise, may yield no personal benefits during one’s lifetime and, to the contrary, may produce powerful enemies and strong antagonism. As he puts it, Wells-Barnett is a “representation of what it means to do good works and…to be rewarded for it posthumously.

Read the excerpt of my interview with Troy Duster in Public Culture.

Posted in activism, BPP, citizenship contradictions, Civil Rights Movement, Ida B. Wells, sociology, Troy Duster | Leave a comment

BOSTON REVIEW Interviews Alondra Nelson: The Black Panthers Versus the Medical Industry

The Black Panthers Versus the Medical Industry

An Interview with Alondra Nelson by Gina Mitchell | Boston Review

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.

Read more at the Boston Review

Posted in Body and Soul, BPP, health inequality | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment