racism

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Opinion: American-Muslim Doctor Reflects On Bigotry At Some Top Hospitals, And Beyond

By Altaf Saadi, M.D.
Guest Contributor

Recently, the wife of a prominent Boston businessman — one of my many wealthy, white patients at Massachusetts General Hospital — greeted me this way: “So what foreign medical school did you go to anyway?”

For background, I’m a petite, Middle Eastern young woman with a headscarf, and I’m guessing I do not resemble her vision of what a doctor “should” look like. That image is probably taller, whiter, male and not Muslim.

My answer (in perfect, unaccented English) to her question about where I was trained? “Harvard Medical School.” After that, her lips remained pursed shut for the rest of our encounter.

As the daughter of Iraqi and Iranian immigrants, such interactions unfortunately have been common for me and my family members since we moved to America weeks before 9/11. When former President Bush declared war on Iraq the following year, for example, my sister and I heard classmates scream, “Go back to your country!” from their pickup truck on our walk home from high school.

I thought that attending college and medical school at Yale and Harvard, respectively, would be my golden ticket to America’s meritocratic dream, that my prestigious diplomas would shield me from future experiences with racism and bigotry. As a neurology medical resident in “liberal” Boston, (and working at a hospital ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report) I also thought that I would be judged based on my medical acumen, not by the color of my skin or the scarf I wear on my head. But I was wrong.

Dr. Altaf Saadi (Courtesy of the author)

Dr. Altaf Saadi (Courtesy of the author)

Another time in the hospital, a male patient told me that his religion is superior to mine. While I was listening to his lungs to help in the management of his shortness of breath, he added, “Why do you wear that thing on your head anyway?” Despite his abrasive behavior, I politely informed him of his treatment plan and told him that I am praying for his speedy recovery.

Another day,  an 80-year old patient with dementia began hitting me on the head when I checked in on her for my daily visit. Pointing to my headscarf, she said, “I don’t want someone with that taking care of me.” Despite her mental condition, the racism still stung as I continued to strive to provide her the best care possible.

My experiences are not isolated. A recent study in the American Journal of Bioethics found that 24 percent of Muslim physicians have experienced religious discrimination in the workplace.

This election year has made it harder to be a Muslim in America. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has advocated for registering Muslims inside the United States and banning those of us who reside abroad. Unfortunately, the majority of Republican Party members agree with him and the number of hate crimes against Muslims have tripled in recent weeks. Yet, I also recognize that Muslims are just America’s newest “outsiders.” Throughout our history, Catholics, Irish, Italians, women, African-Americans, Jews, Latinos and gays have all been targets of nativist fear-mongering. Many of these groups still face significant prejudice today, and hospitals are not immune from such discrimination, whether implicit or explicit.

When I was a third-year medical student, it appeared to me that the pediatric residents and attending physicians would spend extra time caring for the white infants and children during morning rounds. The two African-American babies and one Arab infant admitted to the inpatient pediatrics service at the time were never “oohed and aahed” at and received noticeably less attention. “Have you noticed that only the white children are called ‘cute’?” I asked my friend after our third day on the pediatrics rotation. My friend, an African-American medical student, had his own grievance. He had overheard a doctor refer to an African-American father as an “angry black man.” “I don’t understand,” my friend said. “His daughter is dying, he is upset, and has questions. He’s not asking any more questions than the other parents.”

Our observations were also not isolated incidents. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown that physicians unconsciously prefer and spend more time with white patients than African-American ones.

I also recall the occasional episode of overt racism in the hospital. One surgeon — prominent and stern in his crisp white coat — said the following about a Hispanic patient who was coming to have her melanoma examined for excision: “I can’t believe these people! They have been here for a decade, can’t bother to learn English, and we’re stuck waiting for an interpreter.”

But the episodes of implicit racism have been more commonplace. Continue reading

White Coats For Black Lives: Toward Racial Equality In Health Care

Kaitlyn Veto/flickr

Kaitlyn Veto/flickr

Acknowledging the public health impact of racism and deep disparities in the quality and accessibility of medical care for patients of color, a national organization, White Coats for Black Lives, says it’s launching a new effort today, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dorothy Charles, one of the group’s organizers and a first year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, offers some context in an email:

Racism profoundly impacts people of color: the black-white mortality gap in 2002, for example, accounted for 83,570 excess deaths. As future physicians, we are responsible for addressing the perpetuation of racism by medical institutions and seek policy change to eliminate disparities in outcomes.

Here’s a statement from the White Coats for Black Lives National Steering Committee:

Upon matriculating in medical school, students recite the Hippocratic Oath, declaring their commitment to promoting the health and well-being of their communities. On December 10, 2014, students from over 80 medical schools across the United States acted in the spirit of that oath as we participated in a “die in” to protest racism and police brutality. In our action, we called attention to grim facts about the public health consequences of racism, acknowledged the complicity of the medical profession in sustaining racial inequality, and challenged a system of medical care that denies necessary treatment to patients unable to pay for it, disproportionately patients of color.

Today, in celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we announce the founding of a national medical student organization, White Coats for Black Lives. This organization brings together medical students from across the country to pursue three primary goals:


1. To eliminate racism as a public health hazard

Racism has a devastating impact on the health and well-being of people of color. Tremendous disparities in housing, education, and job opportunities cut short the average Black life by four years. Physicians, physician organizations, and medical institutions must therefore publicly recognize and fight against the significant adverse effects of racism on public health. We additionally advocate for increased funding and promotion of research on the health effects of racism.

2. To end racial discrimination in medical care

We recognize that insurance status serves in our healthcare system as a “colorblind” means of racial discrimination. While it is illegal to turn patients away from a hospital or practice because of their race, patients across the country are frequently denied care because they have public insurance or lack health insurance. We support the creation of a single payer national health insurance system that would give all Americans equal access to the healthcare they need. Such a system would create a payment structure that reflects the fact that “Black lives matter.” Moreover, ample evidence suggests that patients of color receive inferior care even when they are able to see a doctor or nurse; we therefore advocate for the allocation of funding for research on unconscious bias and racism in the delivery of medical care. Continue reading

Study: ‘Tableside Racism’ Persists In Restaurants

(yooperann/flickr)

So much for our post-racial society.

A new report details the insidious racism that still pervades daily life in America, in this case the focus is “tableside racism” that plagues restaurants. The study by University of North Carolina researchers found that one-third of restaurant servers discriminate against African-American customers, with “substantial server negativity toward African Americans’ tipping and dining behaviors.” The report was published online in the Journal of Black Studies.

From the news release:

Researchers wanted to determine the extent to which customers’ race affects the way they are treated at restaurants, so the researchers surveyed 200 servers at 18 full-service chain restaurants in central North Carolina. The majority of the servers surveyed – approximately 86 percent – were white. Continue reading