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The Side of the Black Panthers That's Been Virtually Ignored: Their Fight for Healthcare Justice

In her new book, Columbia professor Alondra Nelson documents the multifaceted (and under-reported) health activism of the Panthers.

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Recently behavioral researchers have aimed to link the presence of what has been called the  "warriorgene" to violent, criminal behavior. At a time when we are learning even more about the complexities of genetic inheritance, about the epigenome and the systems biology, it simply does not make sense that one single genetic marker could have such a dramatic, determinative effect.

A3N: What role has biologization of violence research played in justifying the mass incarceration explosion that began in the 1970s, increasing the prison population from 300,000 to 2.4 million today, giving the US the highest incarceration rateand the largest total prisoner populationin the world?

AN: To the extent that the longstanding efforts I have just described have kept in circulation the fallacy that there is a definitive link between human biology and violence, theses ideas have indeed served as a justification for the expansion of the carceral system.

This is where the policy implications of the biologization of violence come to the fore: If violence is "in your genes" or "in your blood," then one can justify policies that lock people away because these people are "lost causes."

And, in turn, the idea that there is a innate predisposition to violence contributes to the decline of support for rehabilitation and reparative justice programs.

A3N: Since the 1970s, has the US come any closer to realizing the BPP's public health goals? If BPP co-founder Huey P Newton were alive today, what do you think he would say about President Obama's Affordable Care Act?

AN: The revised 10-point platform was prescient in capturing one side of the recent debates about widening health inequality in the U.S. and what to do about it. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that Newton and the party would have appreciated the historic nature of what President Obama accomplished--a feat that many administrations before his had variously tried to accomplish and failed to do. Perhaps Newton would have even observed that the Affordable Care Act is a very small step in the right direction.

However, some journalists and pundits have noted the similarity between President Obama's historic Affordable Care Act and the national insurance plan that former President Nixon backed unsuccessfully. Given the animus between the party and Nixon, and the way this administration and its agents worked to destroy the BPP, it is hard to imagine that Newton would have been in strong support of recent healthcare reform legislation. There would have certainly been opposition to the fact that President Obama's plan is a boon for insurance companies because the Panthers demanded, "healthcare for the people, not for profit."

 
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