When I started to go to the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, it was still known as H&Q after boutique bank Hambrecht & Quist that had originated it.
This means that, as a journalist, I have been able to watch biopharma grow up over the last 20 years.
Those first few events I attended had so little diversity that the upstairs women’s bathroom, tucked in next to the Westin St. Francis chapel — now infamous for being packed to overflowing during the Q&A sessions from the Grand Ballroom presenters — was entirely empty. It seemed like a personal sanctuary.
Over 20 years, that’s shifted dramatically. That bathroom is rarely empty anymore. Many, many more women, as well as Indian and Asian attendees and presenters, are everywhere. But by my measure, Black presence has barely changed a bit.
All the Westin St. Francis’ security guards are Black. I know because every one of them always takes note of me with a smile, a hello or a too-forceful insistence to see my badge. One day, I thought, the number of Black executives presenting on stage and attendees of the conference would surely outnumber those security guards.
But that day has not yet come. Believe me, I can’t help but take a count every year.
The life sciences industry is brimming with optimism. It has to be. The work, conducting science intended to improve upon the quality and quantity of human life, is difficult. A relentless, enthusiastic spirit is essential to get through this careful, cumulative endeavor. It’s infectious, and one of the things I enjoy about covering this industry. That same upbeat, future-oriented outlook can also blind people to hardships and injustice in our midst.
I’m well aware of racial injustice. I grew up on a farm in southern Ohio, attending public schools that were almost all white. I am nothing if not a realist about the prospects for change when it comes to systematic racism in America.
I am a part of the Loving Generation, the cohort of mixed race children born in the United States in the years just after the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia that legalized interracial marriage throughout the country. As promising as that sounds, my white mother’s family split when I was born into those who accepted me and those who could not — and therefore would pretend I did not exist.
That was entirely characteristic; they were from a long line of small Ohio and Indiana farmers who were among the earliest colonizers of the region and deeply invested in white supremacy. Many of their ancestors had originally been Virginia planters and slaveholders, in fact my seventh great-granduncle was a signer on the Articles of Confederation for the thirteen colonies.
Race was at once everywhere and nowhere in my upbringing. My high school years included a Ku Klux Klan rally that passed one block from my house, sparked because a classmate had been suspended for a few days after wearing his uncle’s entire white-sheeted Klan costume to school. The rally was in response, an objection to that scant punishment.
I grew up arguing my way into honors classes that weren’t assigned to me, then aced them. Academic success became my ticket out of a place that had no room for me. I used it to hurtle my way into an urban future, where I was sure I could flourish, find my people and make my home.
I won a full tuition scholarship to New York University through its Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars Program. Terrified of debt even then, I chose NYU over Columbia University, which was my preference but had admitted me without sufficient aid.
Then I headed to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where I was backed first by a fellowship from the Ford Foundation and then by another from the National Science Foundation.
I am a student of history, having spent a chunk of grad school in the mid-1990s at Berkeley interviewing sickle cell patients and their families about the paucity of pain relief and their fears and realities around a lack of access to adequate healthcare.
Like so many other racial disparities, this is one aspect of our country’s history that remains unaddressed and unresolved.
I was born just after the Civil Rights movement. There were historic achievements, yet in the many years since, major measures of racial disparities have barely budged and voter disenfranchisement remains rampant.
School segregation simply reshaped itself through housing segregation, while income and wealth gaps remain as wide as ever. Health disparities remain glaring with significantly disproportionately high rates of maternal and infant mortality, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma and other chronic diseases. Black Americans also are less likely to have adequate health insurance to address these ailments. The list goes on.
White supremacy is the reason America doesn’t have basic public benefits, like universal health insurance as well as affordable daycare or university education. Rich European countries that were racially and ethnically homogenous, where people are largely seen as deserving of potential support, were willing to provide all the public goods. That’s getting tested now, as many of these countries become more diverse, often with an influx of immigrants of color from former colonial countries.
All of America’s racial disparities remain true despite massive advances on Black achievement of college degrees. Advancement through education doesn’t insulate us from the sting of racism; I’ve often felt it.
Realtors have actively discouraged me from buying in a white neighborhood. Neighbors have welcomed us with a slashed car roof and punctured tires along with countless noise and permit complaints. Hotels and restaurants have tried to deny me service because they presumed that I was a prostitute on the hunt for a client.
There was once a boss who loaded me with multiples of the work assigned to my co-workers — and then turned around and yelled at me in the office for being “stupid” after an error and, separately, for loving hip hop music.
I was told by the recruiter assigned to replace me at that position after I left that he was unable to find anyone able and willing to do all the work I had done — for a similar salary to what I had received. I mean, I do consider myself the James Brown of life sciences business journalism, always hustling the hardest for the story, but that’s just ridiculous.
Bay Area dreams
But it didn’t really hurt until I got older and started to see it unspool against my family. Overachievement and hypervigilance can only get you so far — and at great personal cost, believe me. I’m so good at sublimating my feelings to function in a hostile environment, that sometimes I only know I’m angry or upset because my rib cage hurts like a giant hand is squeezing me.
Like the time a couple years ago, when my now 80-year-old father was ill in a hospital that attempted to prematurely discharge him. The hospital had fudged the paperwork to note that he was ambulatory, even though he was not, on the assumption that no one would advocate for him or ask questions.
Whispered guidance from Black hospital staff, including a nurse, a resident and a social worker, instructed me on how to officially appeal his status and get him all of the treatment that he needed and deserved. He needed an advocate, and I was the only one he had.
That’s the most difficult part, watching people and institutions treat your loved ones like they don’t deserve care, respect or the benefit of the doubt.
I spend a lot of time trying to ensure that people with power get to know my children and my father, so I can try to believe that they see at least some little bit of what I love in them.
For example, in middle school, I had to go visit the assistant principal every trimester. My son was earning top grades. I needed to go in there because the assistant principal kept putting my son in easier classes, when he needed to stay enrolled in the harder classes.
When we were picking a high school for our eldest son, I called the best public one in town. I talked to one of the only Black professionals there, a guidance counselor, after about a half-dozen Black former school students and parents advised me not to send him. Hoping for reassurance, I instead got a warning. She told me that she herself had a complaint pending against the district — and that she would advise against me sending my son there because the academic environment isn’t supportive of Black students.
If we did send him, the advisor suggested that both parents attend every event and underscore how committed we are to supporting his education with all of the administrators and teachers — otherwise they wouldn’t see him as a serious student.
We instead chose a very small, public early college high school where the teachers could get to know him.
We repeatedly have what is now widely known as “the talk” with our sons advising them of how to best navigate a hostile, dangerous environment, starting heartrendingly early. And, sadly, at ages 11 and 15, it’s already proven useful for them both.
I had been deeply hopeful that the diversity of the Bay Area, where I have made my home for almost 30 years, would meet with the burgeoning Internet and biotech industries that have come to fuel the region’s prosperity to help buoy the Black and brown communities. But that is not what has happened. Instead we’ve largely gotten pushed out — again.
We embody our history. My wife, who is second-generation from Mexico, likes to remind me that our house was built only a few short decades after California was no longer a part of Mexico. Her family moved back and forth several times over the generations between what is now the U.S. and Mexico. Calafia, for whom the state is named, is a fictional Black warrior queen from a 16th century Spanish novel.
There used to be such a large Black community in Oakland because it was the terminus of the first transcontinental railroad. Black people worked on the railroad as porters — and in many of the dangerous jobs building and running it.
My own great-grandfather was a brakeman, which then entailed running outside on top of the train to throw a brake on each railroad car. Another great-grandfather was a Georgia sharecropper, with his son, my grandfather, being the fourth and final generation on the plantation after ‘emancipation’.
Today, with housing prices soaring, more and more Black people have been forced out of Oakland. In 1980, almost half of Oakland’s population was Black, now that’s down to less than one-quarter. I cried my way all the way through the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which highlights the city’s historically Black neighborhoods, the Fillmore District and Hunter’s Point, whose Black residents are squeezed out by prosperous, newcomer neighbors.
That’s the real rub, that we keep pushing, striving, building and learning only to be served up again and again merely as exploitable fodder for American capitalism, rather than its intended beneficiaries. Unlike many Americans, we could never count on accessing a good job without pulling out all the stops like moving to a new state or getting an expensive education — and even then that remained out of reach for most.
Interestingly, that top-flight education has been found to be a key ingredient for successful women and people of color — but far less necessary for white men since they are typically perceived as exuding promise even without the sign-off of the most elite institutions of higher education.
All of this plays out in life sciences, like every other industry in America. Corporations are amoral entities; they serve the interests of their shareholders. No one expects life sciences companies to lead when it comes to racial justice.
Still, the life sciences industry can start by owning up to their own historical and current participation in racial exploitation and neglect in pursuit of healing.
Now is the time to examine how institutional racism influences how you and your company interact with Black and brown neighbors, employees, contractors and service providers, not to mention the patients receiving your company’s treatments, the clinical trial participants, and the clinicians prescribing your products.
Only 3% of biotech employees are Black, according to a recent BIO report. Since the University of California system had to dismantle affirmative action in 1996 under Proposition 209, schools across the board have seen Black enrollment plummet. UC Berkeley saw its Black freshman enrollment fall from about 7% prior to that to less than 3% currently.
(There is a current movement to repeal Prop. 209 and a push to make admissions more like the University of Texas system that admits the top 6% of students from each high school in the state, thereby both diversifying the universities and reducing the incentives for parents to drive up real estate prices in areas with “good” schools.)
Black Americans have long been mistreated research subjects (see Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, gynecology experimentation on slaves and Henrietta Lacks) as well as underserved and poorly served patients whose doctors often have racist misperceptions about even their basic anatomy.
Not to mention the potential threats from emerging technologies. If social media can be weaponized to imperil democracies and AI facial recognition offers more opportunities for discrimination, it’s not much of a stretch to see how gene editing opens the door to eugenics. Already, genetic tests are being used by governments to more effectively control and manipulate ethnic minorities in China.
If now is the time to heal America’s traumatic past, life sciences companies and institutions have the opportunity to examine, reveal and clean out the racial wounds that they have been a party to inflicting — and to determine their obligations to ensure reparations and a more equal future.
I hope for real changes to address structural racial inequality, but I won’t hold my breath. For me, at the barest minimum in this industry, if we ever have another J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that’s jammed in the Westin St. Francis again, I hope to see that the Black attendees outnumber the full ranks of Black security guards.
“For a very long time, America prospered—or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can neither understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them. Above all, they cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.
They are forced, then, to the conclusion that the victims—the barbarians—are revolting against all established civilized values—which is both true and not true—and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction. This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s decline, for no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.”
― James Baldwin, No Name in the Street