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Racism against Black nurses is a historic problem that still exists today

In its early days, the nursing profession was associated with Victorian ideals of womanhood such as dignity, morality and virtue, according to a recent report from The Conversation. At the time, Black women were thought to not possess such ideals, and so they were prevented from pursuing career in the field.

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Even today, Black nurses—many of whom are on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19—still face various forms of racism within the industry.

It wasn't until 1879 that the first Black nurse—Mary Mahoney—graduated from an American school of nursing. Mahoney joined her colleagues Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah B. Thoms, both founders of the 1908 National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), to challenge the rampant issue of racial discrimination in the registered nursing profession. At the time, many of the American Nurses Association's state chapters refused to admit Black nurses. But once the ANA began admitting Black members in state associations, the NACGN slowly dissolved.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the civil rights movement led Black nurses in the U.S. to form the Council of Black Nurses, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area Black Nurses Association, according to nbna.org. These two groups held a major conference that attracted nurses from across the country with the goal of helping to better serve Black people within the health care system and to have Black nurses play an influential role in this area.

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In 1971, the groups merged to form the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), which was formed to address some of the same issues as Black nurses continued to hold little influence in the American Nurses Association. The organization still exists today, with 115 chapters representing over 200,000 Black nurses, nursing students and retired nurses in the U.S., the Eastern Caribbean and Africa.

Despite the relentless efforts and progress made over the years, it's still not uncommon for Black nurses to face discrimination in the workplace, especially from patients. According to nurse.org, racism from patients is "… a bit of an open secret in the medical industry …" with some patients refusing to be helped by non-white nurses. This can put hospitals in a problematic situation since they sometimes choose to abide by these requests to appease their patients and protect their nurses. It happens so often, the site says, that several lawsuits have been filed against hospitals by nurses.

Furthermore, as The Conversation's Keisha Jefferies pointed out, there are "stark examples of anti-Black racism" embedded within nursing school curriculums "that not only reinforces the invisibility of Black nurses but also exacerbates health inequities." For example, she writes, "Black folks suffer from high rates of chronic illnesses including diabetes, high blood pressure and mental illness. These health inequities are worsened by an undertone of mistrust towards a health-care system that does not have health-care workers who look like you nor who understand your health needs — leading to misdiagnosed or undertreated conditions."

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As has been the case for centuries now, Black nurses and other nurses of color continue to be prevented from attaining leadership positions, according to American Nurses Association president Ernest J. Grant. A health care system’s leadership should reflect the patients they care for, so an all-white management team is an indication of a problem, he added, especially in areas where a significant number of patients are people of color.

In the end, "nurses need to speak up whenever they see racism going on," Grant said in a recent interview with Health Leaders Media. "[It doesn't] matter if it's a physician or another nurse or another member of the healthcare team, we need to call it out."

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