Professors discuss racial and LGBTQ+ health disparities in forum

Prof. Medill and Renberg Chair Stephen Thrasher and City University of New York Professor Linda Vilarosa discussed racial and LGBTQ+ disparities in the US health care system at the Renberg Forum event on Tuesday.

Moderated by Medill Dean Charles Whittaker, the panelists discussed Thrasher’s book, “The Viral Underclass,” and Villarosa’s book, “Under the Skin.” Both books were written around the same time and highlight the systemic health barriers facing marginalized communities.

“The Viral Underclass” tells the often unfair narratives about viruses and how certain communities are “blamed” for them, such as black gay men during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Thrasher said. The shaming of black gay men during the crisis highlighted societal ills such as the criminalization of HIV and limited access to treatment, he added.

“Often viruses that are inherently social and that associate socially are blamed on one person as if they don’t exist anywhere else,” Thrasher said. “It’s really important that media coverage reflects that reality … and gives people the opportunity to come out safely without thinking they’re going to be shamed.”

“Under the Skin” explores the racial bias perpetuated in the health care system, particularly against black women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for black women was nearly three times that of non-Hispanic white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Villarosa discussed how black diabetic patients are more likely to become amputees than their white counterparts.

“I don’t think health care providers go into their profession to do harm,” Villarosa said. “But someone makes these decisions about unequal treatment.”

Villarosa said these problems are often structural, with policies that perpetuate red lines and the cycle of poverty. Distorted media coverage can also exacerbate these problems, she added.

Thrasher said that journalism’s focus on an “individualized narrative” rather than a systemic one inadvertently increases stigma against underrepresented communities. All three professors agreed that health reporting still focuses disproportionately on individual cases and their experiences, rather than delving into the systemic roots of the problem.

“Calling out these bad practices helps the media realize what our complicity is in perpetuating these stereotypes, rather than digging beyond the surface,” Whittaker said of Thrasher’s point. “I certainly think we have the capacity to change that.”

The panelists also gave the floor for questions from the audience. English Prof. Sarah Shulman asked whether Villarosa applied her line of research to black gay men and whether class influenced these patterns.

While Villarosa said her work has not yet explored the issue, her anecdotal research suggests that black gay men receive similar quality of health care regardless of class.

During his time teaching medical students, Villarosa said he realized many people needed a wake-up call to recognize systemic problems in the profession. But she added that people are sometimes the ones who perpetuate these inequalities.

“I feel bad sometimes when I talk to medical schools and say, ‘Well, here are these 483 studies that say something is going on in the hospitals where you work,'” Villarosa said. “It’s an implicit bias that happens in individuals, no matter who you are.”

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Related stories:

Viruses are a tool for understanding systemic racism in Medill Prof. Stephen Thrasher’s new course

The Social Justice Tour shines a light on the history of race and feminism on campus

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