African-American Men: Missing Persons in Medicine
Joey is one of the regulars at the gym. I try to go to the gym every morning. I’ve been doing so for years, and I’ve actually made a whole cohort of friends like Joey, who go to the gym at the same time as I do. Among them are several other physicians. However, I’m the only one that Joey and several others call “Doc.” Why is that?
It’s because I’m Black. There are very few African-American physicians — less than 7% of the physician workforce. There are even fewer African-American males who are physicians. Joey, who is a European-American, isn’t racist. He’s very explicitly anti-racist. However, implicit racial biases are still held by the majority of whites (and a large minority of African-Americans). (See this New York Times article, or test yourself at Project Implicit.) The biases against and stereotypes of Black men make criminal, delinquent, poor student, and illiterate (among other things) seem fitting; whereas, physician doesn’t quite make sense. Hence, my being a physician becomes my most salient feature. An African-American male physician. Wow!
The dearth of African-American physicians in the workforce is an issue that many of us have worked to correct. Now, many are turning their attention to the more particular issue of the scarcity of African-American men in medicine. Marc Nivet, the Chief Diversity Officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), notes in a recent AAMC report that “While the demographics of the nation are rapidly changing and there is a growing appreciation for diversity and inclusion as drivers of excellence in medicine, one major demographic group—black males—has reversed its progress in entering medical school. In 1978, there were 1,410 black male applicants to medical school, and in 2014, there were just 1,337. The number of black male matriculants to medical school over more than 35 years has also not surpassed the 1978 numbers. In 1978, there were 542 black male matriculants, and in 2014, we had 515. No other minority group has experienced such declines.”
The problem begins early. Poor housing, high unemployment, unhealthy environments make African-American children less school-ready. Once in school, they’re thrown into under-resourced educational institutions, which makes them less able to matriculate into college. If lucky enough to get into college, they’re not as prepared for the work and are less likely to go on to graduate work. I’d say the entire educational system is designed to reproduce poor, impoverished working-class African Americans. The U.S. educational system needs a revolutionary overhaul.
In the meanwhile, we can build support networks (mentors, advisors, peer support) for African-American men; we can provide young African-American boys with information; we can, and should, bend the rules and act affirmatively to get African-American men into medicine. Increasing diversity in medicine is imperative. It will bring new ideas, new energy, creativity, and innovation to the profession. And, it’s the right thing to do.