Legislature Nebraska Politics racism

The Racial Innocence of Nebraska State Senator Suzanne Geist

If we want to be generous to Nebraska State Senator Suzanne Geist, we could credit her for being a conservative who, unlike some in her party, has at least acknowledged that she has not been clued in to the racial strife in this country. Recently, the Lincoln Journal Star ran an article profiling Geist and how she has been “shaken to the core” by racial unrest, the reasons for which, by her own account, she seems to have just become fully cognizant of at age 58. Notably, she is offering this “why, I had no idea” response while running to be re-elected in five months.

Come on.

How can anyone in this country make it to age 58 in naive ignorance of this country’s original sin? And why would anyone making such a claim view herself fit for public office?

Nebraska State Senator Suzanne Geist
Nebraska State Senator Suzanne Geist. Photo from Nebraska Legislature.

Let’s take a closer look at this claim of Geist’s. The LJS describes Geist as having grown up in a majority black town in Arkansas, Pine Bluff, where she “had African American friends from childhood and beyond” (eyeroll) and where her physician father was a forward-thinking school integration proponent.

Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is where the Arkansas Department of Corrections is located. In 1970, Judge Jesse Smith Henley described Arkansas prisons this way:

“For the ordinary convict a sentence to the Arkansas Penitentiary today amounts to a banishment from civilized society to a dark and evil world completely alien to the free world, a world that is administered by criminals under unwritten rules and customs completely foreign to free world culture.”

The father of Suzanne Geist—née Suzanne Henderson—was Dr. Francis Henderson, who began a company called Health Management Associates in Pine Bluff in 1978, when Suzanne was still in school there. Health Management Associates (HMA) ran a horrific prisoner blood program that gained international notoriety.

Arkansas did not (and still does not) allow prisoners to earn wages from labor, but they could earn money from donated blood. So the state began a public/private collaboration with Geist’s father’s company in which prisoners would donate blood and plasma that would be sold through international brokers, and the profit would be split among prisoners, his profitable company, and medical programs for the prison system—medical programs that Henderson was also in charge of. In practice, prisoners were often paid with narcotics and were inadequately or fraudulently screened for diseases, including hepatitis and HIV. Some infected prisoners were allowed to donate blood after trading favors with staff. Not only did prisoners become infected through unhygienic procedures, HMA’s blood program distributed infected blood internationally. Eventually, tens of thousands of Canadians were infected with hepatitis B and C, and many more with HIV, thanks to Geist’s father’s prison blood program. Thousands of Canadians are estimated to have died as a result, and the Canadian government has paid billions of dollars in victims’ compensation. (See coverage here and here for starters.)

Henderson’s company had been warned again and again by the FDA that their blood program was unsafe, and the FDA even banned prison blood sales in the U.S. in 1982, but Henderson and his partners in state government—which included members of then-governor Bill Clinton’s administration—persisted in selling to the international market. In 1983, Henderson was having a hard time finding buyers for his prison blood because of the AIDS crisis—which he insisted did not exist in Arkansas—but managed to find a buyer in Canada. Shortly thereafter, authorities yanked HMA’s license for a year “for falsifying records and shipping hot blood,” according to an investigator’s report. HMA had collected and sold blood from prisoners who had tested positive for hepatitis B, which was an indicator that the donors were at high risk for developing hepatitis C and AIDS. The investigation discovered that HMA management had “initiated or condoned” the falsification of records of the tainted blood. By that time, thousands of blood products created from those prisoners’ blood had already been distributed in Canada. An attempt to recall them was unsuccessful.

All this happened as Geist was in high school and then set off for college in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Front page of Toronto Star, November 26, 1997. The lead story is titled "Ottawa apologizes for tainted blood role."
Front page of the Toronto Star in 1997, after a report on the tainted blood scandal was released. Suzi Parker, writing for Salon a year later, noted that this scandal received little attention in the U.S. “maybe because it involves two groups no one cares much about—people who aren’t Americans, and prisoners.”

Geist is not responsible for her father’s failings. But she is responsible for her own. She is responsible for knowing how her position in life was boosted by money made from bloodsucking parasitism on disproportionately black prisoners who could only make money by opening a vein for her father. She is responsible for knowing whether her personal wealth has been boosted by this blood money through the inheritance tax-shield her father created a year before he died. She is responsible for knowing that the state where she was raised, which had one of the worst prison systems in the country and perhaps the most notorious school desegregation fights in the nation, did not magically solve its white supremacy problem immediately after the National Guard was called in to allow black students to enter school. She is responsible for knowing that the city of her birth, St. Louis, Missouri, was the site of one of the most notorious acts of police violence in recent years.

She is responsible for voting against restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies in Nebraska who have done their time. And while she voted correctly in support of Senator Justin Wayne’s bill to amend the state constitution to eliminate slavery in Nebraska prisons (which passed unanimously, so she’s hardly ahead of the curve there), she is responsible for not saying a word about how exactly such prison slavery is what led to her father making a fortune off of harvesting and selling tainted prisoner blood. She is also responsible for voting against other equal rights legislation.

Geist made feeble excuses to the Lincoln Journal Star for her purported obliviousness to the American racial crisis. It’s because everything seemed to be going so well when she lived in Arkansas. It’s because of social media’s cancel culture. Well, no white adult can claim racial innocence in the United States. And anyone trying to do so in 2020 has no business claiming to be a leader.