American Medical Association Apology Sparks Discussion on Race

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.”

Comments are closed.