At the beginning of last Sunday’s webinar, “The Big Conversation,” 40% of the participants weighing in on the opening question confessed they knew “very little” about Maryland’s history of health care. By the conclusion of his over-90 minute presentation, Steven K. Ragsdale had provided his audience with stark evidence that the state has a tainted history of health care inequalities that stretches all the way back to the 1600s.
Ragsdale, an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former hospital administrator, stated that in 1619, the first ship of African captives arrived in Jamestown, Va. Those enslaved people were forced to work on tobacco farms.
Ragsdale noted that many insurance companies, big businesses and even Ivy League schools financially backed the slave trade.
“We live in a country founded on a ‘value gap,’ with white lives valued more,” said Ragsdale, who added that a “caste system” was built in Maryland during the 1600s.
Through his research on “medicine and science in race history,” Ragsdale reported he found that there evolved “a race-based mythology that African Americans were less than human, while introducing concepts of Darwinism and eugenics in medicine and science that were significant in creating a language that enabled the proliferation of polygenism across western society while simultaneously systematically supporting segregation policy.”
Ragsdale also noted that enslaved people, prisoners and “foreign-born/impoverished citizens” were all used to conduct medical research. In the area of mental health, Ragsdale reported that “legal segregation was the impetus” for Maryland’s white leaders in the medical and political fields to open Crownsville Hospital, initially as an “all-Black asylum,” in 1911.
“Crownsville Hospital operated a work camp for incoming ‘patients’ upon its opening,” Ragsdale stated. “Blacks and whites received disparate psychiatric diagnoses that, likewise, were racially fraught in that they often advantaged white people.”
The marginalization of Black people when it came to health care, Ragsdale indicated, created a cycle of poverty.
“If you didn’t have your health and wellness, how could you engage in economics?” Ragsdale asked.
Dr. Nancy Briggs, a retired physician who is a member of the Big Conversation committee, spoke briefly after Ragsdale’s presentation.
In answer to a comment about solving the nation’s health care crisis with universal health care, Briggs stated, “Medicare for all is a good thing, but it won’t change” social perceptions.
There will be two followup webinars as part of the Big Conversation on health care inequities.
The program, which started in 2010, has as its mission the breaking down of barriers of “racism and privilege” in different aspects of society.
“We see ourselves as a catalyst for change,” Diane Davies, the event chair, stated at the start of Sunday afternoon’s webinar.
Subsequent sessions dealing with the topic of health care are scheduled for May 23 and June 13.