Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Medical Racism in America: a Giant Mind-Boggling Game Without End

An explosive book that came out last year, Black and Blue:  the Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism, should have reverberated throughout the medical community and caused we physicians to closely examine our own prejudices and how they have affected the behavior of, and our relationships with, our black patients. 

So of course there has hardly been a whimper in the medical community. I did see a rather bland, "balanced" (almost namby-pamby) review by two African-American psychiatrists in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the official journal of the American Psychiatric Association. I don’t think much will come of it.

The author of the book, University of Texas professor John Hoberman, explains many of the reasons why the medical profession does not look at itself much in this regard, most of which I will not discuss in detail here. One of the biggest reasons can be summed up in one phrase: the mutual estrangement of puzzled Whites and resentful Blacks.

John Hoberman

Just to be extremely clear, there is no doubt that the problem of racist beliefs in medicine started with white racists and not their black victims. Many of the ideas about physical and mental differences between Blacks and Whites came from the colonialist opinions of Europians that Africans were more primitive than white people – less further along than Whites on the evolutionarily scale and therefore sub-human. Thus, their bodies and minds were supposedly simpler and therefore less or more prone to certain diseases. 

As seen originally by colonialists,  the black body, being more simple, was hardier than the white one. Black skin, for example, was thought to be tougher. This conveniently provided slaveholders a justification for working their slaves in the cotton fields for long hours in the hot sun. At the same  time, being supposedly simpler mentally, slaves could be thought of as less likely to get depressed, so the myth was born of the happy black slave, grinning from ear to ear with his strong white teeth while eating watermelon, content being taken care of by his benign white masters.

While physicians in general no longer express these ideas, derivatives of them became part of medical folklore and were passed down as an oral tradition from medical student to medical student. For example, observations by white doctors of what a non-naïve individual would see as the understandable reluctance of Blacks to be put under anesthesia (and therefore under the complete control of a potentially racist doctor), was instead put together with the notion of black hardiness, and voila!  Black patients are far less likely even today of being given adequate anesthesia during surgery.

Hoberman describes in detail how racist ideas from the past have morphed into medical folklore about Blacks concerning the treatment of diseases of nearly every organ system.

Disparities in the health care of white and black patients such as the one just mentioned have been endlessly documented, so their existence should not be in the least controversial. White doctors unfamiliar with the racist history of American medicine, however, are likely to misinterpret the mistrust of their black patients as an innate tendency to be non compliant - or just plain lazy - which in turn makes the white doctor reluctant to put a whole lot of energy into convincing black patients to follow their advice.

Black patients have good reasons for their mistrust of the medical profession, including of psychiatrists.  White physicians tend to think that 1962 was a long time ago.  That was the year the American Medical Association stopped deferring to Southern state medical associations (doctors have to join the state and national associations at the same time), and allowed all African American physicians to become members.

Then again, I guess 1972, while more recent, seems like the distant past to such physicians.  That was when the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment came to public light -  a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the natural progression of the untreated disease in rural African American men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. The men were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it.

When I moved to Memphis, I was impressed that seemingly every African American I spoke with was aware of this history – even those who were not particularly educated.  For white doctors, not so much. Unfortunately, human beings have very long memories. The Serbs and Albanians, for example, still have strong feelings about a battle that was fought in the year 1389! 

It doesn’t help when white doctors like conservative commentator Sally Satel blame treatment disparities entirely on the resistant attitudes of black people without any reference to this history.  She also writes that racial profiling is important in medicine and justifies this idea ( with the example of the implications for choosing medications based on the real difference in the racial distribution of different versions of enzymes that metabolize certain drugs (different alleles on the genes responsible for producing the metabolizing enzymes). 

In picking on one of the extremely few areas where there actually are racial differences, she ignores the far greater quantity of ideas within medical folklore purporting differences that do not in fact exist.  Like the supposed proneness of the black brain to produce hallucinations in psychiatric disorders, for example (originally attributed by doctors to its “primitive” state).

The mistrust of racism in medicine has unfortunately led a significant proportion of Blacks to believe in some seemingly far-fetched conspiracy theories. Many Blacks believe HIV and birth control programs were invented and designed by the white establishment in order to commit genocide against minority groups. 

These conspiracy theories even reached all the way to Africa, leading to the disasterous AIDS policies of South African president Thabo Mbeki. To most Whites, these theories sound completely irrational and paranoid. Of course, historically, Planned Parenthood was indeed founded by an Anglo-American eugenicist, one of whose goals was to limit the number of children of east European immigrants to the United States, whom she considered genetically inferior beings.

There is also a rather crazymaking problem for Whites who attempt to take an interest in the whole problem of the consequences of racism on black folks. This problem was exemplified by the vicious attacks on Senator Patrick Moynihan for his 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The report discussed the “pathology” that racism had created for many Blacks and their families.

According to the Hoberman’s book, the black intelligentsia protested the report with sentiments something akin to, “How dare some white social scientists tell black people who and what they are?”  They thought that the report pathologized and stigmatized black urban culture, and that it seemed to be an oblique endorsement of old racist biology that regarded black people as inherently diseased and beyond salvation.

This has led to a situation where even today it is considered a breach of academic etiquette for any white social scientist to theorize about Black culture. I personally was crazy enough to do some of that in my first book, since a problem seen frequently in the Black urban poor community provided the clearest example of a point about the development of family system dynamics I was trying to make. Fortunately - I guess - that section of my book was completely ignored by reviewers. Whew!

So one of the reasons that white doctors are reluctant to look at their own attitudes and the history and consequences of medical racism is a fear of open discussions about that very subject. They do not want to be considered racists. So what are they supposed to say?  That racism did not create a host of problems for African Americans, so they do not seem to pathologize them and over-generalize about them? If it did not, then what is the big deal? If they ignore the problems, they could then be accused of covertly wanting racist practices to continue. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Maybe if we just do not bring up the subject, no one will notice. Except maybe for that troublemaker Hoberman.

So here we have the explanation  for the “mutual estrangement of puzzled Whites and resentful Blacks” phenomenon. To oversimplify a bit, Blacks will not tell doctors that they are mistrustful of white doctors (and of Black doctors as well, for reasons discussed in the Hoberman’s book) for fear of being labeled as paranoid, and white doctors are afraid of getting labeled as racist no matter how they discuss the problem!

This is a perfect example of the family system game without end on a larger, societal scale, which makes solving this problem so devilishly difficult. No one trusts anyone else who claims they want things to be different, so anything anyone does or says can be - and invariably is - reframed as just the same old thing – just another manifestation of the Black belief in the incorrigible racism of all Whites, or of the White belief in the presence of innate Black pathology and inferiority. No wonder we get stuck!

This game without end can lead to paradoxical and at times bizarre situations. Hoberman bemoans the fact that black kids are much less likely to get stimulants for “ADHD” than white kids, which he attributes partially to white doctors’ subconscious belief in the stereotype of the “happy Negro” described above. Black mothers, on the other hand, do not want their kids to take these drugs because they believe that the drugs would be used to pacify young black males and rob them of their spontaneity, thereby making social control of Black people easier.

I doubt that the motives of most White doctors are that pernicious, but the mothers are actually right about the effects of the drugs. In this case, the idea that stimulants are being used to control behavior is correct, and the black kids are better off not getting the drugs. The problem is not, as Hoberman implies, that black children are not getting a needed medication, but that too many white kids are getting medication they do not need instead of getting family therapy! Of course, black families are not getting as much of that as white families either.

The author’s solution to the problem of medical racism, although he probably does not know about the concept of the game without end nor necessarily totally appreciate the intricacies of interpersonal miscommunication, is for medical schools to teach the history of medical racism and about the presence of incorrect folkloric beliefs that many physicians still hold. This way, the doctors would hopefully not misinterpret the lack of cooperation they receive from their black patients, and take time to explain more about what they are recommending, and reassure the patients that they understand any reluctance the patient may have to follow their doctorly advice. 

Hoberman admits, however, that there are not very many people available who are qualified to even begin to teach such a course.

As to his book itself, it is sometimes annoyingly repetitive, and at time a little confusing. When he discusses discrepancies in the care of black and white patients, it is sometimes unclear if his examples are due in his opinion to medical mythology, a misunderstanding of actual differences, black mistrust of white doctors, or all of the above. Nonetheless, since there aren’t many books that take this whole subject on, I recommend it.

1 comment: