Darryl L. Fortson, MD
"Untreated" Racism Is America's "Syphilis"
One of the reasons racism in America has been so intractable is because it continues to be presented to America as “Black people’s problem” or a dilemma singularly affecting the racially aggrieved group. But of course, this is not so. To look upon racism as being the afflicted group's problem is akin to seeing syphilis as “the genitalia’s problem,” paying no mind to what it does to the body as a whole. An affliction of the genitalia may almost always be where such a scourge starts, but it is most certainly not where it ends.
Racism, in fact, is America’s “syphilis.” Like the human disease, the disease of American racism has had three active stages. First, it began as an ugly sore – referred to in medical terms as a “chancre." That “sore” was slavery, manifested at its very genesis in 1619. Next, it invaded the body of the nation, bringing about afflictions which mirror those associated with the infamous sexually transmitted disease. Just as the second stage of syphilis (“secondary syphilis”) can scar the lens of the eyes, leading to a “syphilitic cataract,” so too did American racism blind us with the “cataract” of White supremacy to the evil it wrought.
The bacterial infection of Treponema pallidum (the spiral shaped bacteria that causes syphilis) deforms bones to affliction and pain, weakens bones to fracture, and distorts cartilage so much that a person’s nose, as the pictures above show, may collapse and flatten (called a “saddle nose deformity” because the nose looks like a horse’s saddle). In the same way, our nation and its institutions become deformed, distorted, and broken with racially charge political lying (i.e. “birtherism”), pervasive gun violence in every public space, and an opioid epidemic that has spread far beyond the boundaries of communities of color.
Syphilis, in its secondary stage, can also eat through the blood vessels, causing those afflicted to bleed to death internally where they stand. In like manner, White Americans have bled to death in racially charged violence in Charlottesville (Heather Heyer) and Kenosha (Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber).
There is a stage in the disease where the manifestations of the disease quiet and regress. All seems well, but all is not. In medicine, we call this the latent stage. In America, we called it “The Obama Administration” – which was as “post-racial” as an untreated treponemal infection at this stage is “post-syphilis.”
This is because, in the third (“tertiary”) and final stage, syphilis spreads to the brain. The afflicted become irrational and unsound of mind. Some become weak and unsteady (called "tabes dorsalis"). They may see things, lash out, or place themselves and others in harm’s way. In the paralleling American affliction, we maddeningly choose hyper-ambitious, hypocritical, cowardly, and sociopathic leaders, often in the name of ignorant, ungodly, and racist notions. We shoot and kill one another – Black. White, and Latino - randomly or for no justifiable reason at concerts, stores, in schools, and in the doctor’s office. We buy guns in agitated fear, refusing to limit ballistic access or power to the immature, the spiritually empty, and the mentally ill, even for the sake of our neighbors, our children, and our own long term survival. We overdose on opiates to ease the pain and numb the fear of our own future. We tell ourselves lies and we believe lies in the racist reverie we inhabit, crafted by the powerful for our own exploitation and destruction.
What Americans need to understand is that Black people can survive without Reparations. After all, we have endured this long through every manner of indignity, loss, and hostility imaginable, so there is no reason to think we cannot just "carry on and go forth." But what cannot survive without slave Reparations for the African American is the United States of America. Black America has suffered from Reparational injustice, but now White America is dying from it. The weight of the injustice has now become too heavy for the body politic and its citizens to bear. It is being used, with ever increasing success, as a wedge to separate common White folks from the intent to “establish justice and “ensure domestic tranquility” through the Constitution, from their ability to discern truth from gross untruths, and even from the Judeo-Christian principles of honesty, mercy, and rejection of the notion of being “a respecter of persons” that is the sinew of the Old and New Testaments alike. As William Butler Yeats wrote, “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” It cannot hold when the net worth of a small cadre of people (overwhelmingly White) soar as the rest of the citizens of the planet (especially those of color) see their net worth stagnate or plummet. In a functioning society with a future, there must be justice; and in a functioning capitalistic society, there must be economic justice. This, as much as any other reason, is why Reparational justice must prevail.
The treatment for syphilis is penicillin; the treatment for a system of racism borne of enslaved, uncompensated labor is Reparational justice aimed at ending the racial net worth gap. We would be wise to “take our medicine” as soon as possible, because the stage of syphilis after the last stage is called “death.”