By Holly Watt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008
The country's largest medical association is set to issue a formal apology today for its historical antipathy toward African American doctors, expressing regret for a litany of transgressions, including barring black physicians from its ranks for decades and remaining silent during battles on landmark legislation to end racial discrimination.
The apology marks one of the rare times a major national organization has expressed contrition for its role in the segregation and discrimination that black people have experienced in the United States.
In a commentary in the July 16 Journal of the American Medical Association, Ronald M. Davis, the organization's immediate past president, noted that many of the organization's questionable actions reflected the "social mores and racial discrimination" that existed for much of the country's history. But, he wrote, that should not excuse them.
"The medical profession, which is based on a boundless respect for human life, had an obligation to lead society away from disrespect of so many lives," Davis wrote. "The AMA failed to do so and has apologized for that failure."
AMA officials declined yesterday to discuss specifics of the apology, including how it came about, saying that information would be released today. But the Davis article refers to a committee of experts convened and supported by the organization to examine "the historic roots of the black-white divide in U.S. medicine."
Specifically, the panel noted that the AMA permitted state and local medical associations to exclude black physicians, effectively barring these doctors from the national organization. In the early 20th century, the organization listed black doctors as "colored" in its national physician directory. In addition, the AMA was silent during debates over the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, for years, declined to join efforts to force hospitals built with federal funds to not discriminate.
Richard Allen Williams, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles and the president of the Minority Health Institute, said the apology is "an excellent gesture of goodwill."
"I applaud the AMA for doing this. In the current climate of health care, it is a very timely gesture," he said. "Less than 5 percent of physicians are African Americans, and that needs to be changed. This cannot be changed by African American physicians alone, and we all need to move forward together."
Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society and a member of the National Medical Association, a predominantly black medical association that was established in 1895 in response to the AMA policy allowing the exclusion of African American physicians, welcomed the apology.
"Any sort of acknowledgment that blacks were excluded is a positive step," Brawley said. "But I'm much more interested in the future than in the past. I would like to see a focus on getting quality care for all people."
The AMA was founded in 1847 by Nathan S. Davis, a doctor from New York. Today, it has almost 250,000 members and supports education and research programs, but in recent years has also been losing membership.
Today's apology is the latest in a series of expressions of regret by government entities and businesses in recent years.
In the past, states including Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia and Florida and businesses such as Wachovia have express regret for their role in slavery. Last year, the governing board of the University of Virginia became the first to pass a resolution over the "regret for its use of enslaved persons from 1819 to 1865."
In 2005, the Republican Party said it was sorry for its racially tinged "Southern Strategy," which it adopted during Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign.
President Bill Clinton in 1997 expressed regret for the experiment in which U.S. government researchers used black men to study syphilis in Tuskegee, Ala., starting in 1932. Instead of treating almost 400 men who had been infected by syphilis, the researchers gave the men placebos and then observed the progression of the disease. The study continued until 1972 and ended when its existence was leaked to the media. Clinton called the study "deeply, profoundly, morally wrong."
The apologies issued by institutions are often carefully worded to ensure that they do not become liable for financial reparations.
According to the AMA's online chronology, the association has also been slow to respond to the issue of discrimination against African American doctors.
In 1939, the organization stated that it "emphatically deprecated discrimination." At the same time, however, the AMA recognized county societies' "right of self-governance in local matters, including membership."
In 1954, the AMA refused to allow the Old North State Medical Society, which represented African American physicians in North Carolina, to be admitted to the association, just as the North Carolina Medical Society had refused to lift its racial barriers.
In his commentary, Davis wrote: "Although current members of a group might bear little or no responsibility for past actions, a group apology makes clear the group's current moral orientation. Acknowledging past wrongs lays a marker for understanding and tracking current and future actions."