Last Tuesday, like most of the country, I stayed up too late watching the election results come in and then became emotional when it was clear that Barack Obama, an African-American, was going to be our next president. Wednesday morning’s New York Times captured the most salient part of the moment for me in its headlines: “Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.”
But a few days later, as I thought more about racial barriers, I started to question my election euphoria. In politics, the racial barriers might have fallen, I thought, but what about in health care?
There is no question that racial barriers still exist in many parts of this society. The first time I remember having a frank conversation about racial barriers in medicine was during my residency.
Of all the surgical residents I trained with, “Eric” was easily one of the smartest. He possessed a great bedside manner, brilliant clinical skills and plenty of that Obama cool. Eric was African-American, and one night, when we were both on call together, he told me something I have never forgotten.
“You know, Pauline,” he said, “there are a lot of times when I go to a patient’s room for the first time and they ask me, 'Are you transport? Are you here to wheel me to radiology?’” I can remember Eric shaking his head as he spoke. “They never assume I’m one of the doctors.”