Radical Healthcare Pt1: Black Panthers and Health Activism

The Radical Healthcare series will be exploring healthcare models that intersect with progressive left wing branches of political thought. The first in the series will focus on The Black Panther Party.

The mainstream representation of the Black Panther Party (BPP), a revolutionary organisation founded in 1966 with the aim to empower and defend black communities in the United States, is one of violence. This presentation obscures the communal dimension of their organizing and within that the fundamental position healthcare activism took in their philosophy and praxis. By embedding social work into the fabric of their movement, they also centered the protection of black communities against violence, institutional and physical, ‘in forms of programs not guns’. The Black Panthers understood that racial discrimination shapes the health and consequent healing of members of their communities in deprived areas, and the political implications of having a profoundly socialized approach to providing healthcare in the USA. Their commitment to empowering black and oppressed healthcare was not a mere publicity stunt, it ran deep in the veins of the movement and has left a lasting mark on the approach to public health in the US today. In this post we will chart the context in which their healthcare organizing was taking place, the origins of the BPP’s health activism and how they went about building autonomous healthcare infrastructure.

Medical Apartheid

The fact that Black Americans faced (and continue to face) barriers in the 60s and 70s to receiving the same level of health care as their white counterparts can be traced back to slavery. Plantation culture required black bodies to be ‘sound enough to labour’, meaning the commodification of the black body sidelined holistic healing from the outset. As the movement for black rights advanced the requirement for black bodies to be ‘sound’ also declined, as they no longer held ‘value’ (in the crudest sense of the term). This offered the framework for physically inhumane and epistemologically dubious medical studies to be conducted on black bodies- the most well known these being the Tuskegee Syphilis study. Furthermore black individuals were also unable to access adequate medical facilities due to systematic Jim Crow era policies, and later in virile discriminatory racist attitudes. All of this was underscored by the deep held belief of the biological inferiority of the black body. This is a brief summary of the historical baggage the Black Panthers were dealing with, and that had resulted in a ‘Medical Apartheid’ of sorts in the newly urbanized black communities of their era.

Origins of The BPP’s Healthcare Policies

The core of the BPP’s activism was the safety, wellbeing and determination of black people. They understood that high quality healthcare provision for all, goes hand in hand with a just and equitable society. Ideologically the movement was influenced by the likes of Che Guevara and Franz Fanon, both physicians turned revolutionaries, the former explored the centrality of medicine to the revolutionary struggle and the latter identified medicine as an instrument of colonialism. The BPP also had Maoist influence, a group having spent some time in China being trained there. The lay health workers (‘barefoot doctors’ ) that characterized the Chinese healthcare setup influenced the healthcare infrastructure implemented by the the BPP. Furthermore historical and organisational dynamics, influenced by violent clashes initiated by COINTELPRO and the BBP and internal leadership clashes over the importance of social programs in the movement, further informed the shape their policies took.

On The Ground Organizing

The 1972, 10 Point Manifesto outlines the Panther’s position on Healthcare provision:

6. WE WANT COMPLETELY FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL BLACK AND OPPRESSED PEOPLE

We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.

Point 6 of the Black Panther’s 1972 Manifesto

The Panthers made a rallying call to the government, whilst at the same time clearly enunciating their own unwavering commitment to help their people. It is worth noting that the Black Panthers had minimal funding, working with grants or donations, health professionals providing their services voluntarily, and in some cases stealing equipment. Ultimately it is this commitment to prioritize the health and well being of their communities, and an idea of ‘organic unity with their patients’, that allowed their health initiatives to gain traction and do their job.

A key feature of the BPP’s healthcare program was the Free Health Clinics (PFMCs). Alondra Nelson describes them as ‘broad purpose ecumenical spaces with the central aim of improving healthcare’. The PFMCs became a requirement for new Chapters.

Though their services were limited, they offered primary care treatment. The most interesting aspect of these clinics in my opinion were the ‘patient advocates’. These were the Maoist inspired ‘barefoot doctors’, who were trained community members whose role comprised of advising patients on a range of issues from financial, housing and legal advice to engaging clinic users in political education and reading groups. Other initiatives such as breakfast clubs and community gardens, also entered in on this central aim of improving healthcare- healthcare being conceived in a holistic sense as being influenced by an individual’s interactions with society and its politics. These progressively organised healthcare infrastructures took into account the biopsychosocial model of health before it had been enshrined in conventional medical practice. Fred Hampton, a party leader describes in a concise anecdote, to intersection between preventative medicine and the body politic of a racist society:

“to get up at 5’oclock in the morning to feed somebody’s son and then at 3 o’clock that afternoon shoot him” 

Fred Hampton

Another prominent aspect of the BPPs healthcare activism was their push for genetic screening. Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that largely affects individuals of African or Caribbean descent, was under researched and (despite there being an portable and efficient test available) was not screened for routinely, for this very reason. The BPP undertook a a mass public education initiative and rolled out screening across their Chapters. They tailored their medical focus for the populations they were treating in order to better serves them. This community based approach for patient outreach is one which is now backed up in the literature and is being rolled out increasingly across the UK in the form of social prescribing. Once again the Panthers were implementing public health procedures far ahead of their time.

Conclusion

The Black Panther Party faced challenges on all sides, in growing and maintaining the healthcare infrastructure which defined their movement. Unfortunately by the 1980s, infighting amongst the party leadership fomented by the FBI, meant that the movement and it PFMCs, breakfast clubs and other initiatives fell apart. However its legacy lives on in America to this day in the emphasis of genetic screening initiatives and the work they did to highlight issues of the subordination of black bodies in the medical research and practice. Their radically socialized model was and still is the antithesis of the conventional American capitalist public health system, as it placed the value on the health and safety of the black community astronomically higher than profit and commercial interests. It’s a a shame that I must advertise their work as a radical form of health activism, in fact it seems to me like the natural route to value human life.

Bibliography

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5024399/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5024403/

https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303401

https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303400

https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303407

https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303422

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12111-019-09450-w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2TTLJhP2Jk

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4457018/

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/panthers-guerrillas-black-america-kurdistan-their-struggles/id1517740959?i=1000478288165

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/martin-luther-king-jr-and-the-black-panther-party

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