By Dr. Howard Brody
The Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch and Temple B’nai Israel are collaborating in hosting guest lecturer Dr. John Hoberman of the University of Texas at Austin on Tuesday.
Hoberman is author of “Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism.”
I’d like to explain why we are joining in this effort and why it’s important for all Galvestonians.
Despite a mountain of data gathered during two decades showing how African-American patients generally do worse than white patients with the same diseases, very little progress has been made in narrowing the health disparities gap. The gap cannot be explained away either by different genes or by poorer health behaviors among African-Americans.
Hoberman offers a challenging explanation: Ever since slavery days, white America has believed in myths about how black bodies are different from white bodies.
These myths became a problem for medicine during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Physicians liked to believe they were liberal, scientific thinkers and could not be guilty of racist ideas.
Hoberman asks: Did these deeply rooted myths about black bodies simply disappear? Or did they go underground, continuing to influence the medical care received by black patients?
One might debate Hoberman’s theory, but where he seems to have the strongest argument in his favor is in highlighting medicine’s reluctance to study this problem.
If Hoberman is wrong, medicine could prove him wrong by doing research to show physicians simply no longer believe any of those old myths.
It seems striking that such studies have never been carried out — despite medicine’s puzzlement about why racial health disparities persist.
All this might be of great interest to health care professionals. I believe, however, this discussion is of wider interest to the Galveston community.
Hoberman’s work shows how a well-intentioned group of individuals can genuinely desire to rid themselves of old-fashioned racism.
This group can change its conscious attitudes and believe that racist thinking has been relegated to the distant past. And yet, important racist assumptions might still remain and affect how we treat racial minorities within our community.
Hoberman also shows how difficult it is to root out these hidden assumptions. Most of us feel quite threatened when the topic of race is brought up in our society.
The searching self-reflection needed to expose some of these deeply hidden attitudes is extremely painful. We prefer to change the subject or to attack anyone who even brings it up.
We believe the community of Galveston, just like the American medical profession, would benefit from candid discussions about this uncomfortable topic.
At a glance
WHO: Dr. John Hoberman of the University of Texas at Austin
INFO: Samuel G. Dunn Lecture, “Medico-Racial Folklore: How to Educate the Medical Community,” in Levin Hall North on UTMB’s campus at 5 p.m. Tuesday. His talk for the wider Galveston community, “How Can Medical Racism Exist in the 21st Century?” will occur at Temple B’nai Israel, 3008 Ave. O, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Howard Brody is director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at UTMB.