Headlines were generated throughout the press recently after Florida teenager Malachi Robinson was arrested on charges of impersonating a doctor in a West Palm Beach sting operation. Promoting himself as a medical doctor and practitioner of holistic medicine, the 18 year old’s deceptive scheme raised many significant questions about the state of medical ethics in the United States and how the trust that is supposed to exist in a doctor-patient relationship can be breached with nothing more than a white coat and a fraudulent web page.
Yet beyond these obvious deficiencies, there are other concerns that bear directly on the representation of young Black men in the medical field. In 2015 the Association of American Medical Colleges published must read report titled Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine. Among the valuable insights detailed in their research is the fact that, “the number of applicants from one major demographic group—black males—has not increased above the number from 1978.” According to the report 1,410 Black males applied to medical school in 1978, a number that exceeds the 1,337 who applied nearly four decades later in 2014.
In an attempt to pinpoint factors that may be driving this trend of underrepresentation, the researchers rely heavily on the “perspectives of 11 black premedical students, physicians, researchers, and leaders.” Crucially, the AAMC examines how “public perceptions and images of black men, including negative media portrayals and lower expectations … may adversely influence their educational and career progress.” Malachi Robinson’s arrest is a dramatic case of such a “negative media portrayal,” and should serve as an opening for more serious discussions about the place of African American men in medicine that rises above the sensationalism of the daily news cycle.
Perhaps this is why the AAMC report stresses the importance of community support structures in the development of aspiring doctors. Without this conversation the rate of Black males matriculating through medical school is likely to continue lagging behind the rate of those applying. As of 2014 only 40% of applicants matriculated through medical school, approximately 10 percentage points below the rate in 1987 (50%). More alarmingly, “the percentage of total medical school applicants who were male was lower for the black/African-American group than for any other race or ethnicity,” and only 26% of African American males in medicine reported “excellent or very good financial status,” compared to 53% of white males.
Testimonials from Dr. Alden Landry and Dr. Cedric Bright attest to how formidable a challenge institutional racism can be for African Americans within the medical profession. “Black men aren’t perceived to be doctors;” asserts Dr. Landry, adding “we’re perceived to be sort of lower on the totem pole and doing other roles in the healthcare field.” Daunting as these realities appear it is certainly within our means to overcome them. Historical Black Colleges and Universities like Morehouse College, Howard University and Xavier University of Louisiana top the list for undergraduate programs which attract the largest number of Black male applicants (2010-2014).
Statistics of this kind are encouraging in that they reveal prestigious institutions that are well placed to combat this downward slide, so while daytime journalists excitedly seek to boost their ratings by investigating every minute detail of the Malachi Robinson story, it will be the responsibility of those of us who see the need for African American men in medicine to create a path for future doctors. Only then can we revolutionize the medical industry so that it gives voice to the intellectual gifts and talents of Black youth, a brilliance that is not subject to impersonation.