The tainted legacy of Margaret Sanger, famed birth control pioneer and founder of Planned Parenthood, stands steeped in Eugenics: the belief that some “unfit” groups should be eliminated through population control. As a matter of correcting Sanger’s racist legacy, scholars often work to disconnect biology and race. Still, educator and scholar Shay-Akil McLean says the entangled frameworks of biology and race need not be distant entities, as valuable historical context may be lost in the process.

McLean, 31, is a research assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois’s School of Integrative Biology, where he's studying how to "decolonize DNA." 

“If we ban biology and genetics from the study of race and racism, we will not be able to understand the role that race and racism have in producing racist health inequities,” McLean says. “If we want to understand how and why people racialized as Black and Indigenous lead morbidity and mortality rates across the United States, we need to understand what is happening to Black and Indigenous peoples. How are they being treated? Where do they live? What kind of resources do they have access to?”

The researcher, who has both a bachelors and masters degrees in biology and anthropology, explains his field of study as deconstructing the current understanding of biology and medicine through a eurocentric, racialized lens.

In practice, this looks like advocating for vulnerable groups and reminding his followers that the health disparities facing Black and Indigenous communities are symptomatic of a centuries old illness: colonization. His website, Decolonize All Things, contains reflections and essays on the intersections of biology and race. With his social media “Hood Biologist” moniker, McLean continues to bridge the gap between science and the communities it's been weaponized against.  

While some scholars bury their heads in the pristine sand dunes of academia, McLean remains focused on advocating for his community. He says it was the front porch conversations he had with the Black folks in his neighborhood that drive his work today.

“The most brilliant people I have ever met in my life were in my neighborhood,” McLean remembers. "They didn’t have degrees, but we had books, library cards and front porch conversations about what shapes our collective experiences. Quite honestly, I’m just a Black person who has always read a lot, all throughout my childhood and into adulthood. People often meet me or come across my work and assume I come from a middle class background where I was afforded major class privilege and favored in educational institutions. My experience was nothing like that.”

McLean’s advocacy, standing at the intersections of science and society, is more relevant than ever. The national debate around access to healthcare has been revitalized as the Affordable Care Act is set to appear before the Supreme Court next month, where a salivating Trump hopes to fulfill his campaign promise to repeal the historic healthcare plan.

While the larger healthcare conversation reduces vulnerable Americans to stories and statistics, McLean’s studies remind of the systemic nature of healthcare disparities across racial lines. True equitable healthcare, he finds, starts at the top.

“To be under the impression that what happens socially is not mediated through politics is foolish and most importantly, harmful," McLean explains. "The American medical system spends a lot of time victim blaming the sick, saying that their poor life choices are what has ravaged their body, when in fact the ultimate causes are systematic resource deprivation and exploitation. Social, political and economic conditions act on and create the material environment that our biology interacts with.”

McLean’s assessment, according to Harvard School of Public Health, is apt — and timely. The academic outlet says health disparities in communities of color have been laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis.

Black Americans are three times more likely to contract the deadly virus, The National Urban League reports, and more than two times more likely to be killed by COVID-19, when contrasted with white Americans.

This bleak reality, McLean says, is precisely why we cannot remove race from our understanding of biology and medicine. But that doesn’t mean the two should have been paired in the first place. 

“Racism is what shapes the knowledge that different scholars and institutions have created about our understanding and study of 'life,' which is what biology is,” the researcher finds.

“The racialization of our collective understanding of biology is a colonial intervention. European colonizers created race and racism to justify actions they had already taken and had long practiced," he continues. "The problem is that we have only known racialized biology and racialized genetics. This means that we need to begin developing knowledge about biology and genetics that does not reproduce racism.”

Indeed, the racialized approach to medicine leaves a well-documented trail of abuse for patients of color. Sanger, for example, helped facilitate 1955 clinical trials of the untested birth control pill on largely poor and even illiterate Puerto Rican women, with the novelty of the pill totally unbeknownst to them, History reports. Sanger’s racist motivations were also well-recorded. 

“Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective, for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race,” Sanger wrote in an essay published by New York University. “It is reasonable to assume that women of subnormal mentality, however lacking they may be in vision and altruism, would prefer to avoid the pain and responsibilities of procreation.”

The legacy of Eugenics continues to cast a shadow over the Latinx population. This September, nurse Dawn Wooten blew the whistle on a Georgia ICE detention center where healthcare providers were performing unwarranted hysterectomy procedures on migrant women without their consent, Refinery29 reports. According to the outlet, the culpable doctor performed so many of the sterilizations that he earned the title “The uterus collector.” 

Still, McLean explains, the only way to effectively combat systemic racism and inequality, is to unplug. He authors another account: Book & A Blunt, wherein he pairs revolutionary texts with a neatly rolled palm leaf, stuffed with what he affectionately calls “Ganja.”

“Our ancestors were displaced and dispossessed, forced to labor for the benefit of European colonizers, and this exploitative relation continues today,” he explains. “Rest, recovery, and relaxation are key components to the larger process of social revolution. I cannot effectively work towards achieving Pan Africanism as an objective if I am overworked. Ganga is a foundational part of how I maintain my peace, alongside reading and spending time with my community. Books and blunts are a means through which I take back what is rightfully mine: my autonomy, my peace, and my time.”

The account offers insights into the minds of global thought leaders like Thomas Sankara, Black Panther Party founder Stokely Carmichael and writer W. E. B. Du Bouis — giants that McLean says inspire his own Pan-Africanist work.

Sankara was the president of Burkina Faso, a former French colony previously named Upper Volta, from 1983-1987. The West African nation gained its independence in 1960. It’s taken name, according to Britannica, translates to “Land of Incorruptible People.”

“Thomas Sankara was a revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist and Pan Africanist. His work showed me what is truly possible,” McLean says. “In four short years, under Sankara, Burkina Faso produced two times the food needed for its population, invested directly into women's education, and stopped paying IMF loans. For these reasons, he was murdered in a coup backed by the United States and France in 1987.”

The legacy of the incorruptible lives on. In his field, the Hood Biologist says, he aims to arm Black people with the tools to maintain their autonomy in a predatory medical system. 

“My hope is that my work can be used to develop preventative tools and strategies for the Black community to defend themselves against medical institutions,” McLean explains. “Ultimately, I want to focus on establishing and fortifying communal health organizations that teach people how to be health advocates for themselves, their family, and other community members.”