Given the subject of the book, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in your view, why do you think African- American people were targeted for this experiment?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the reasons why African- American people were targeted in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment was revealed by Sidney Olansky.  Dr. Olansky was the United States Public Health Services director of the study from 1950 to 1957. He indicated that the choice of African- American people was a deliberate:

The fact that they were illiterate was helpful, too, because they couldn’t read the newspapers. If they were not, as things moved on they might have been reading newspapers and seen what was going on.

The experiment could only be successful if it targeted a group of people who were unaware of government intentions.  For this reason, targeting African- Americans in the South fit in the designs of the government's experiment.  

African- Americans were targeted because those in the position of power recognized that they could conceal the full extent of the experiment from them. In Bad Blood:  The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Jones argues that this resulted in "the longest non-therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history."  African- Americans believed that the use of a historically Black university such as Tuskegee translated into therapeutic treatment for the symptoms of "bad blood."  At the same time, African- Americans were led to believe that what they were receiving from the government was an example of subsidized health care from “government doctors." The doctors approached the experiment with a particular zeal that reflected them "wanting to get on with the work at hand."  Given the eager overtures that the government's representatives were making to the African- American community, it allowed the experiment to take place.

Another reason why Jones suggests that African- Americans were targeted for the experiment is predicated upon racial prejudice. The prevailing belief at the time was that African- Americans were "different."  In this case, "different meant ‘inferior."  This perception of African - Americans enabled the government to target them because they were seen as not human.  They were seen as fundamentally less than full human beings.  Such a perception enabled those in the position of power to see African- Americans as "suitable" for an experiment that was meant to track the fatal effects of a disease and not feel ethically or morally obligated to object to its implications.  Coupled with the overall confusion that many African- Americans held towards the study, reflected in how one of the patients openly said, "I ain’t never understood the study," governmental operatives understood the opportunity that awaited them.  The sad convergence of these realities makes clear how the African- American community was targeted by the government in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

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