As of today, Ralph Northam still hasn’t resigned as Virginia’s governor, despite owning up to the fact that he was in a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook from East Virginia Medical School (EVMS). But what’s even more disturbing is that Ralph Northam is far from the only EVMS graduate who proudly displayed his racism for posterity in the school’s yearbook. This is as good a time as any to remind America that some black people do not feel safe in the care of white physicians.
Earlier this week, local media in Virginia reported that Michael Breiner, a former plastic surgeon living in the Roanoke area, also wore blackface in a EVMS yearbook photo in 1985. Breiner defended the costume in an interview with WFXR-TV, saying that he first sought the approval of African American medical students who went to the same party, and that he has “a lot of great African American friends.” (Black people are very familiar with and very tired of the “black friends” argument).
Alarmingly, the examples of Ralph Northam and Michael Breiner are just a drop in the bucket in terms of racism at EVMS. As The Washington Post reported this week, EVMS actually stopped publishing an annual yearbook in 2014 due to all the instances of racism that appeared in the largely student-run publication. Long after the controversial Northam photo in 1984, EVMS provost Richard Homan recalled the school’s diversity official calling attention to a yearbook photo that featured three medical students wearing Confederate uniforms and standing in front of a Confederate flag.
The blackface scandals of both Ralph Northam and, more recently, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) signal the difference between prejudice and racism. While anyone can experience prejudice, racism is an institution deeply rooted in governing structures and systems and used as a cudgel by those in power to punish marginalized communities.
Both Ralph Northam and Mark Herring are issuing public statements acknowledging their problematic behavior but refusing to resign. This should signify to everyone what racism looks like — men with histories of prejudicial behavior have command over institutions capable of profoundly impacting the lives of black people. The power white doctors have over the lives of black people in their care is no different, which makes the Ralph Northam scandal that much more terrifying, given that he was a healthcare provider in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before his time in public office.
To be clear, the problem of white physicians displaying racist behavior isn’t limited to Virginia, and the problem of African Americans receiving substandard care from white doctors isn’t just limited to working-class black people. Even tennis superstar Serena Williams had to manage her own care while giving birth, because doctors dismissed her concerns that she was experiencing a pulmonary embolism due to her history of blood clots. Williams told Vogue in 2018 that doctors initially ignored her requests for a CT scan with contrast and a blood thinner IV while she was in the midst of childbirth, because they thought her painkillers made her disoriented.
Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. “I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. “I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!”
Aside from Serena Williams, black women everywhere are at a larger risk of dying during childbirth. A 2018 University of Michigan study found that non-Hispanic black women are 70 percent more likely to have severe birth-related health problems than non-Hispanic white women, ranging from acute respiratory distress to eclampsia.
“Celebrities like Serena Williams who have shared their birth-related emergency stories publicly have drawn the national spotlight to the urgent need to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in care for women around the time of delivery,” said lead study author and obstetrician Lindsay Admon. “To drive and target those changes, we need specific data like these.”
The distrust African Americans have of white physicians has been widely discussed in academic circles, and even quantified with empirical research. A 2003 study published in the peer-reviewed Public Health Reports medical journal asked respondents how much they trusted doctors, health insurance plans, and hospitals. Researchers found that non-Hispanic black respondents were 37 percent more likely to distrust their doctors than non-Hispanic whites.
There are undoubtedly many issues of concern in the American healthcare system, ranging from cost to the role the profit motive should play in the providing of healthcare. But hopefully the fallout over Ralph Northam will spur a much-needed conversation about the fact that there are white physicians who, despite taking the Hippocratic Oath, allow their personal proclivities to result in a different level of consideration to white patients than their black patients. This example is perhaps one of the many reasons why members of the black community feel compelled to remind everyone that Black Lives Matter.