Just because it is not explicitly encountered, does not mean it's not there. Sidelining the matter in medicine will simply inflame perceptions of inferiority and inequality among people of colour and race; the same goes for other professions and services too.
‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere’.
Martin Luther King fought for civil rights in America with relentless activism and – most importantly- through nonviolence. Yet, the slow pace at which civil rights progressed, sparked more aggressive demonstrations led by Malcolm X and eventually The Black Panthers. That was 60 years ago. To this day, racial disparities, although not as extreme as in the 1960s, are still rife in America. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice. These are just a few of the countless African Americans who have died at the hands of gun violence and/or police brutality. How could we ever excuse the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy playing in a park in broad daylight? Lack of accountability for these deaths has exposed a blatant disregard to address the existence of institutional racism in America.
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement calls for public attention to racial violence and bigotry. Unrest today echoes frustration felt in the 1960s toward the struggle for civil rights. The prejudice faced today is not as it was back then; racism does not show itself purely as implicit, violent hostility. It can be, and is, embedded deep within our institutions – subtle, covert, marginalising and disadvantaging people of different race. What’s worse, it is easily and often overlooked.
Racial violence, and the lack of constitutional action against it, has ignited strife in America. We would do well in the UK to learn to deter from this. Let us not forget the riots that followed the death of Mark Duggan 5 years ago.
This is a public health issue. Advocating for the lives of young black men and women gunned down by a public service that should be protecting them is just part of the fight. In the UK, the movement is gathering support to show solidarity and prevent similar unrest in our own country. Racial prejudice and hostility is a sensitive issue, and we can often undermine its consequences if we are not directly a part of it ourselves. Let’s keep this a topic of conversation. If hate crime unleashed after the EU referendum has drawn the issue of racial discrimination back into the public spotlight, then we must do better to uphold an attitude of acceptance and inclusion across our country.
So, what of racism in our public services – is prejudice present in the health provision of black and ethnic minority groups in the UK? Can discrimination affect the clinical judgement and treatment of patients of different race? No doctor would proclaim that there are disparities in the healthcare they provide to their patients. In fact, many would passionately refute the matter. However, stereotyping and bias can be subtle and unconsciously committed. It can potentially affect the interpretation and management of a patient’s complaint. As such, we must remain sensitive to the issue of race in medicine and invite open discussion when cases raise suspicion or concern.
Once institutional racism, however implicit or covert, claims the life of a vulnerable individual – it is too little too late. Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, David Bennett, Sarah Reed. These individuals suffered from long-standing mental health issues. Each one died as a consequence of failures of the institutions they depended on. They were victims of police brutality and endured neglect from mental health services. We always hear that ‘lessons can be learned’, but how many deaths do we need before we stop sidelining the matter of race in mental health provision? This is a healthcare sector in need of reform.
As well as ensuring patients are subjected to the same service regardless of race – what about the staff themselves? In the UK, discrimination in medicine seems largely focused on the workforce as well. Unfair treatment of ethnic minority groups can begin as early as medical school. Has institutional racism seeped into our workforce and on the wards too? A report published by the King’s Fund charity in 2001,’Racism in Medicine’, sparked debate over the medical profession’s supposed systematic discrimination of its doctors. There are particular questions it raises: are minority groups scrutinised at medical school, and prevented from entering top specialities dominated by white, middle-class counterparts, and more likely to be harshly reproached by the General Medical Council? 80% of ethnic minority doctors in a survey by the British Medical Association considered their ethnicity a disadvantage to their chances of career progression. If reports are true, there is obvious need for action: we should not stand for racial prejudice within our profession.
Let’s make it clear that there is no room for institutional racism within our health service. Training cultural awareness among healthcare professionals, encouraging community engagement and supporting activism helps to promote and maintain equal health rights for all within our multicultural society.
‘White Coats 4 Black Lives’ is a network of medical students in America advocating for racial justice and equality in medicine. Perhaps there’s a need for a similar organisation in the UK – not just for the rights of patients, but for the sake of our multicultural workforce too. Those victimised should not shy away. Patients, medical students, health professionals alike.
Racism is deeply entrenched in our history and modern society. Just because it is not explicitly encountered, does not mean it’s not there. The fact is, it can narrow opportunities, impact policies and endorse unequal rights across public institutions. Take note from the unrest in America: a riot is the language of the unheard. Let’s not allow the same to happen in the UK. Sidelining the matter in medicine will simply inflame perceptions of inferiority and inequality among people of colour and race; the same goes for other professions and services too.
Make room for racial justice everywhere.