American Medical Association Apology Sparks Discussion on Race

By Christine Cupaiuolo — July 15, 2008

Last week, as mentioned in the Double Dose, the American Medical Association apologized for more than a century of racial inequality within the organization.

The apology provided a teaching moment of sorts for Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice, who maintains an online forum on race. White readers, she notes, frequently write in to ask why blacks create their own groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, along with black colleges, sororities, etc. After all, if the word “white” were in the title, wouldn’t those groups be considered racist?

Trice responds:

My answer to these questions begins with the American Medical Association’s announcement last week that it was apologizing to black doctors for policies and practices that for years prohibited blacks from joining.

This week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the group will release the details of the independent group that was commissioned in 2005 to look at disparities in health care and the history of what the AMA called “the racial divide in organized medicine.”

In response to the AMA’s discrimination, black physicians in 1895 founded the National Medical Association. In Chicago, the Cook County Physicians Association was formed. For dentists locked out of the city’s white dental societies, the Lincoln Dental Society was formed. Black pharmacists and nurses created similar groups.

In 2002, Chicago’s Harsh Research collection hosted an extraordinary yearlong exhibit at the Woodson Library on the Far South Side. It was titled, “More Than a Century of Struggle: African American Achievement in Chicago’s Medical History.”

The exhibit explained that until a legal ruling in 1964, 54 of the city’s 57 hospitals didn’t allow black physicians to have attending status. That meant that in order to admit a patient, they had to seek out a white physician.

We’re not talking about Mississippi. This was Chicago just a generation ago.

Meanwhile, the Big Push for Midwives Campaign issued a statement (PDF) in response to the AMA’s apology, drawing attention to the historical role that African American midwives have played:

“Those of us working on maternity care reform have long known that the racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes in the U.S. are a national scandal,” said Susan M. Jenkins, Legal Counsel for the Big Push for Midwives Campaign. “We’ve also known that midwives play a critical role in reducing the two most preventable causes of neonatal death, prematurity and low birth weight. Now that the AMA has recognized the problem, perhaps their members will stop trying to outlaw the solution.”

At its annual meeting in June, the AMA issued resolutions opposing the licensure and regulation of Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs), who specialize in out-of-hospital delivery, with a strong focus on preventative care. Historically, African American midwives have played a significant role in minimizing racial disparities in birth outcomes, and they were employed by the World Health Organization to train traditional birth attendants in developing nations. In the first several decades of the 20th century, the AMA and other medical groups launched a racist campaign to outlaw so-called “granny midwives,” which resulted in the closure of the Tuskegee Institute’s state-of-the-art midwifery school and forced African American women into segregated hospitals.

“African American midwives were also a target of racist practices and deserve to be recognized as well; when those midwives were in the community caring for women, we didn’t have such enormous disparity in birth outcomes,” said Jane Peterson, CPM and President of the Wisconsin Guild of Midwives, and Advocacy Trainer with the Big Push for Midwives Campaign. “Immigrant midwives here in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states also struggled against attempts to outlaw them, but they were never subject to the same level of racist animosity.”

3 responses to “American Medical Association Apology Sparks Discussion on Race”

  1. That was a very informative article about the background of racist practices in health care organizations. While organizations now claim to be integrated, I think that there still needs to be a safe space for those not part of the majority to convene.

  2. If the leadership of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step Fellowships could be as honest as the AMA, it would heal many wounds in people of color communities.

  3. As a Mississippi Black physician, Baptist Medical Missionary and national advocate for health care for the poor and disenfranchised, I was glad to learn of the American Medical Association (AMA) apology for racial discrimination against black physicians. However, I feel the apology falls short of what is needed to bring healing and racial reconciliation to nation’s black physicians.

    I consider the apology by the AMA for historic racial discrimination against African-American physicians a necessary first step toward the resolution of a greater problem.

    The apology does not include recent discriminatory policies and practices that have been supported by AMA leadership. I hope that former AMA President and board member, Dr. J. Edward Hill, will apologize for what he has done to undermine the medical practices of black physicians practicing in the poorest counties in America.

    Dr. J. Edward Hill, while President of the AMA, was a board member of the Medical Assurance Company of Mississippi (MACM), the primary company for providing medical malpractice insurance for Mississippi physicians at the time. MACM’s all white physician Board of Directors refused to renew the medical malpractice insurance policies of several black physicians, forcing me to close my Christian Family Health Centers in some of the poorest counties in America, located for in the Mississippi Delta in 2004. I have never had a medical malpractice judgement or claim against my medical practice after over 15 years of service to the poorest of the poor.

    I believe the AMA must also openly and honestly address the issue of restitution from past and present policies and practices of discrimination toward black physicians.

    Let us not forget our black patients whose access to health care has been limited because of discrimination against black physicians. Black physicians have lost their practices and livelihood because of racism. The medical profession needs healing from the legacy of racial discriminatory policies supported by the AMA.

    I stand ready to work with the AMA to accomplish that goal.

    Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
    Founder & Chairman
    American Pain Institute (API)
    National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
    National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)
    Myers Foundation For Indigent Health Care & Community Development

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