A black doctor discusses the AMA apology
A Chicago doctor talks about racism in medicine

Chicago Tribune Newspaper
Chicago, IL

By Judith Graham
August 10, 2008

"The American Medical Association (AMA) today apologizes for its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians."

This historic statement, issued today, represents the first acknowledgment of a bitter truth: racism has pervaded medicine, as it has all aspects of American life. Fewer than 5 percent of the nation's physicians are African American, less than half their representation in the overall population.

This afternoon, I spoke to Dr. Carl Bell, one of Chicago's best known black physicians, about his experiences. Bell is a professor of public health and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School and president of Chicago's Community Mental Health Council.

Q. What's your reaction to today's news from the AMA?

A. It's about time. Maybe Obama is right. There is hope.

Q. Can you tell me about some of your experiences? I remember, I was a psychiatry resident [in 1973] and the residency training director [at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute] came up to me and told me I was going to be chief resident, which was quite an honor. So I went around and told everybody. I was very proud. I had worked very hard.

Then, about three weeks later he came back to me and said Bell, I'm sorry, but you're not going to be chief resident. And I said that's interesting, why is that? And he said, I could lie to you and make something up. But it's because you're black.

I asked what happened. And he said that he had been residency training director for six years. And for six years he had picked the chief resident because that was his job. And the executive committee had always ratified this decision. But this time when he took it to the executive committee they told him no.

He told me their concern was that I'd won every honor the residency program had to bestow. And if I won this one, I'd have won them all. And they just could not have a black guy do that.

And I was actually very happy that he had been honest with me. I said thank you. He said, why are you thanking me? And I said, now I don't have to worry or wonder was it me or was it racism? At least, I know what's up and I don't have to go home and torture myself with questions.

Q. What about medical school? Did you experience prejudice there as well?

A. Medical school was even more ridiculous. I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And prior to going to UIC I had taken college courses at the city colleges. And I got two years of credit in one year. Then, I went to UIC on the quarter system and I got two years of credit in one year. So, I got a bachelors degree in biology as my major with a full minor in both chemistry and math with a B+ average in two years.

And they would not let me into medical school at the University of Illinois.

[Bell describes going in to see a UIC official, who comes up with various reasons why he didn't get in. In each case, Bell explained that he knew of another black student with worse grades and worse test scores and the same kind of extracurricular activities who was admitted.]

[Bell is discouraged because he had his heart set on UIC. His uncle finds out that the UIC had accepted three black medical students for the last 30 years.]

"I was medical student No. 4, which is why I didn't get in."

Now, here's the funny part. I didn't have any money but I had been accepted at Meharry [Medical College] in Nashville Tennessee. [A medical school for blacks.] There was a national scholarship foundation that gave money to black students going to medical school. I remember going to their office in Chicago and meeting with the guy and telling him my grade point average and test scores. And he said that's great! That's wonderful. You're obviously going to be somebody. He asked me what medical school are you going to? I said Meharry. He said oops.

That's how I found out they wouldn't give money to black medical students going to black medical schools.

Q. Have you ever been a member of the AMA?

A. Hell no. And the reason why is because the AMA has a long history of racism and discrimination against public health and national health insurance. The National Medical Association had to be formed because the AMA wouldn't let black physicians in. The AMA also had a really bad habit of being far harder on black doctors when physicians would get into trouble from drugs or being mentally impaired. I've had many colleagues tell me that.

Q. Do you think you had fewer opportunities as a physician because you were black?

A. Oh yeah. If I were your average white guy I'd be further along. I'm pretty much at the top of my game now but it's taken me longer. In terms of mentorship, you know in medicine if you're well connected you do better faster. And if you're black, it's hard to get well connected. You have to make your own way.

But I have to admit, me being forced to go to Meharry was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Because Meharry had a very strong public health culture. And I'm a very strong public health guy. The UIC would have socialized me professionally to maybe do something different, like practice money instead of medicine. But I practice medicine.

And now I'm a professor of public health and psychiatry at, of all places, UIC. And this is amazing. These are the people who wouldn't let me into medical school. The world has changed. But it's slow.


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