Date Thesis Awarded

4-2019

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)

Department

Anthropology

Advisor

Joseph L. Jones

Committee Members

Jonathan Glasser

Adrienne Petty

Abstract

This thesis explores the relationship between health and racism in Washington D.C. during the 20th century with a particular focus on pulmonary tuberculosis in the African American community. Tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in the United States, but African Americans had even greater incidence of the disease than the white population. Contemporary commentators debated whether this was due to a difference in “racial fitness” or a difference in environmental conditions connected to housing. This thesis explores the evolution of theoretical approaches regarding racial disparity in the rates of tuberculosis in the United States, with particular attention to Washington, D.C. These theories, as developed by both African American and white scholars, demonstrate the change in the sociological and medical perspectives around health and the environment. Their studies directly challenged the racist hypothesis of “racial fitness,” but their arguments had their own limitations, specifically in how they saw the role of the environment in relation to the tuberculosis issue, either framing African Americans as victims or enablers of their circumstance. In turn, we can better understand these limitations and what they missed by thinking about the link between tuberculosis, residential segregation in the city, and wider patterns of migration to the capital. By arguing for a rereading of the early twentieth-century tuberculosis literature in the context of the intertwined crises of both housing and racism, this thesis attempts to better understand the links between racism, economic marginalization, and health.

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