Professors discuss racial and LGBTQ+ health disparities in forum


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

Moderated by Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, the panelists discussed Thrasher’s book, “The Viral Underclass,” and Villarosa’s book, “Under the Skin.” Both books were written at similar times and highlight systematic health restrictions against marginalized communities.

“The Viral Underclass” tells the often unfair narratives of 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 HIV criminalization and limited access to treatment, he added.

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

“Under the Skin” examines the racial biases held in the health system, especially against black women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for black women was nearly three times the rate for non-Hispanic white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Villarosa discussed how black diabetes patients are more likely to be amputated than their white counterparts.

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

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

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

“Calling out those bad practices helps the media realize what our complicity was in perpetuating those stereotypes and not digging beyond the surface,” Whitaker said of Thrasher’s perspective. “I definitely think we have the ability to change that.”

The panelists also opened the floor for audience questions. English prof. Sarah Schulman 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 has indicated that black gay men receive similar quality health care regardless of class.

In her time teaching medical students, Villarosa said she realized many needed a wake-up call to recognize the systemic issues within the profession. But she added that individuals are also sometimes the ones who perpetuate these inequalities.

“I feel bad sometimes when I speak at medical schools and say, ‘Well, here are these 483 studies that say something is happening in the hospitals where you work,'” Villarosa said. “It’s implicit bias that happens in individual people, regardless of who you are.”

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