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BALLARO: Johnson & Johnson, built on Black lives

Column: 'Round About Town

Johnson & Johnson is a company built on the suffering of Black women, a group commonly disregarded and neglected on matters of health. – Photo by Wikimedia

“Our talc is safe, does not contain asbestos and does not cause cancer," said Kim Montagnino, a Johnson & Johnson (J&J) spokeswoman, according to Bloomberg.

Try telling that to 20,000 lawsuits, $100 million in settlements and countless Black and other minority women plagued with ovarian cancer.

In this great moment of social upheaval, we must reconcile the past to achieve parity for the future. J&J may be the foundation modern New Brunswick rests on. And yet, that is a foundation of violence against Black women.

Talc, the naturally occurring mineral used in talcum powder, is tricky to mine. You see, asbestos is a fatal friend to talc, naturally occurring under the same geologic conditions. Asbestos, the carcinogenic material responsible for mesothelioma, commonly contaminates talc harvests.

Since the early 1970s, J&J had been well aware of its talc supplies being contaminated with asbestos. That did not stop them from reaping decades of profits and lives stolen.

For years, women and, in particular, Black women across the country have trusted J&J talcum powder as a genital antiperspirant and deodorant. J&J has mounted millions in marketing to target the Black community and take their money for decades – even if that meant poisoning their ovaries with cancer.

When women applied the powder to the most intimate parts of their bodies to feel “fresh,” they unknowingly exposed themselves to asbestos particles. These particles would travel up through their wombs, and it was only a matter of time for their ovaries to become malignant.

In 2006, J&J sought to reinvigorate the trust of the Black community in company products. Thousands of internal documents show the surgical precision in which the company targeted the wallets of Black Americans.

It sent endless “gift” samples of baby powder to Black people, beauty salons and barbershops. Southern radio stations droned its ads on repeat for “Curvy Southern Women 18‐49 Skewing African American” — myriads of meetings, memos, emails, letters and business reports.

They did it all with the knowledge they were poisoning people from the inside out. None of this is an isolated incident, though. It is only the logical outcome of a 250-year-old system of supremacy, oppression and violence.

Early on, when I started taking public health courses at Rutgers through the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, I learned about the maternal mortality crisis in the United States.

Do you know people still die in childbirth?

Do you know that the United States is the most dangerous place in the developed world to give birth?

Do you know that Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women?

Do you know that it does not even matter if you are educated, if you are financially successful or even if you are Serena Williams, Black women still disproportionately die at higher rates in childbirth?

How many Black women lose their lives in giving life? How many mothers were passed up, let down and went unheard because their skin had too much melanin?

When the publishers of Pearson put out nursing textbooks that said, “Blacks often report higher pain intensity than other cultures,” should we be surprised Black women’s cries of agony go unheard?

Or when a Black woman asks for pain medication, she is told she is “just doing it for drugs,” or she is being “aggressive"?

It is yet another manifestation of the racist, pseudoscientific idea that Black people somehow feel less pain.

James Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology," got his start by mutilating enslaved black women. He “operated” on them without anesthesia, perfecting his technique for vesicovaginal fistula removal, before administering the procedure to white women with anesthesia.

The American precedent to devalue the suffering of Black lives is still strong today. 

Americans did not think Black people needed anesthesia then and did not think they needed oxygen to breathe now.

Maybe that is why J&J never cared about the Black lives they swept aside for profit.

Maybe they thought it would not hurt them, to have their ovaries metastasize, to have their fertility snatched away, to lose taste and hair through rounds of chemo treatments, to miss weddings and graduations, to leave life earlier than they should have.

And for what? Talcum powder? 

All it would have taken was cornstarch, for Christ’s sake! Or just having the conscience to put a Black life above a bill. We must stand and fight for Black lives. We are defined at our best by how we treat others at our worst. We must mend these unjust health disparities and bring prosperity to all!

Johnson & Johnson. These are the people we are trusting with the development of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine. Never forget the history of how we got here.

Anthony Ballaro is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in classics and public health. His column, "Round About Town," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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