Hard Wiring of Racism in the USA

Bernard Lown, MD

Election of a first black President evoked much wishful thinking that the US had entered a post-racial era.  It took 45 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, but at last we had arrived, if not to the promised land, at least to a more equitable social order. The arrest of the distinguished Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr charged with disorderly conduct by a police officer investigating a possible break-in at the Gates home in Cambridge, Mass. An outstanding academic was being herded to a police station like a common criminal just for being black.  

As Glen Loury argued in an Op Ed in the New York Times, this is but a tempest in a teapot.(1)  Extensive media coverage of the Gates incident ignored the experience of millions of black men who are racially profiled and harassed daily by the police. Black people are frequently stopped, searched, publically demeaned and arrested.  During the past 30 years, Loury pointed out, with massive popular support, the US has enacted an extraordinarily punitive and brutal criminal justice system. Since 1980 the numbers of those arrested had quintupled; these are mostly  black and Hispanic men, who now constitute two thirds of those jailed. As of mid 2008,  about 4.8 percent of black men compared to 0.73 percent of white men are imprisoned. While whites by far exceed the use of illicit drugs, blacks are imprisoned 13 times as frequently. (2) The US is the world’s largest jailer spending three times more for jail than for  public education. The likelihood of a black child at age seven ending up in prison during a life time is one in three, while for a white child it is one in seventeen.

Three strike drug laws target disproportionately the poorly educated, permanently unemployed, segregated inner city under class blacks. These jobless young men, hailing form dysfunctional families, gravitate to gang activity, drug trafficking and petty crime. The constantly brewing violence is largely self-directed against their own kith and kin. For the white community, the police serves as the front line to contain what is regarded as a ferocious beast. They are unwilling  to confront the  social and economic policies that  beget the evil system.

Racism fosters insouciance to the overwhelming tragedy churning in America’s cities. Even when our rational minds reject the sick stereotypes of racism, nonetheless, it continues hard-wired in our emotional apparatus. I know this personally. When out  at night, in the peaceful neighborhood  of my white suburb of Newton, Massachusetts  encountering a white person elicits no unease. But should a black person be walking towards me,  my pulse picks up, activating  the primordial neural network of fight or flight. This response overwhelms me with shame. Yet throughout  my life I have struggled against racism. How does one purge these sick repugnant atavisms when society works overtly and subliminally 24/7 to instill alienation from and suspicion of Afro-Americans?

An  early encounter with issues of race occurred 61 years ago when I was a medical assistant-resident at the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. BJ was the first black intern the hospital had ever employed. He was intense, introspective and temperamental. He was an eager beaver, up at the crack of dawn to take bloods, and still making rounds at midnight. He was committed to learn and performed well. I liked him and sensed that he was walking the extra mile to make a good impression.

Then something changed.  Whether it happened gradually or rapidly I no longer recall.  He was taciturn, sulking and remote. I had to contend with a bundle of hostility.   The head nurse complained that when she called him recently at 3:00 AM about a patient having died. Customarily the intern promptly appears to certify the death.  BJ had a “temper tantrum” and showered her with expletives. “What the fuck is the matter with you?  I just went to sleep. Are you  worried the corpse will get cold?” and slammed the telephone receiver down.”

On another occasion, a nurse raised a more serious charge that he had assaulted a white patient. I pleaded with her  not to report the event. Apparently at about 6:00 AM BJ began blood rounds. He roused one woman abruptly by putting a tourniquet around her arm before she was fully awake. She took one look at him and let out a blood curdling scream that she did not want a “schwartzer”* to stick  her. Impervious to her objections,  BJ forcefully bent back her arm and drew blood. The woman was hysterical for the rest of the day.

When I remonstrated about his behavior, he angrily stalked out of the room muttering,  “You can take your own fucking bloods.”  I thought he was merely blowing off steam. Indeed the next morning he did not show up to take bloods. He stopped performing his other duties. Over the ensuing  six weeks I reverted to intern status, getting up at the crack of dawn to draw bloods, admit patients, do lab work and carry out the many chores of an intern.

I did not discuss his dereliction with my medical attending nor with the hospital administration. BJ would have been summarily dismissed.

Days would go by without his appearing. He grew more irritable and even combative. One day in a fury he confronted me,  “If someone pissed on me the way I am doing on you, I would punch in his shitty face.” And then thrust his jaw at me, grabbed my fist  and tried to have me punch him. As I wouldn’t, he began to seethe, “Lown you are a fucking coward.”

I responded angrily: “Look I am taking enough of your shit already, but don’t have me sink to your level or interfere in my doing your neglected work. Get off my ward this minute before I have you thrown off.” I later regretted losing my cool. He was sick and I was his only connection to a sane world.

Slowly we began to talk. He would come in my room late at night lie on my bunk and stare into space.  He carried about him a penumbra of rage, but the more striking emotion was his being swathed in a heavy fog of depression. It was a sad sight.  A lost soul craving human companionship.

What enabled me to maintain emotional balance was the conviction that his execrable behavior stemmed from our suffocating racism. When I expressed my views to BJ, he rejected it outright,  “Just a pile of intellectual shit.” Though a victim he had imbibed American values. He forcefully espoused that personal responsibility is the law of the land. “You get what you deserve.”

After some months he began to listen. He grew more docile, more child-like craving parental guidance. I pieced together, from tatters of numerous conversations that he was born in South Carolina, stemmed from a poor black farming family.  After doing brilliantly in college, he was accepted at the University of Michigan Medical School. As the only black student he was deemed a pariah by many and avoided as though a leper by others. The only one who befriended him, who seemed to understand  his problems was one of the deans. BJ  began to feel that there was hope in that not all whites were full of racial  prejudice.

Encouraged by the dean, he applied to white hospitals. He was rejected by all.  Eventually he obtained a rotating internship at the Sydenham Hospital in Manhattan, a black institution. Dissatisfied with this run down city hospital, he applied for other jobs in New York city.  The hospital  director advised him not to use his “trump card,” namely the letter from the Michigan dean. When he eventually saw what the dean wrote, he understood why the multiple rebuffs.  The letter indicated that BJ “like other members of his race was endowed with limited intelligence and less ambition, but if he worked hard he could do a passing job.”

BJ admitted to being devastated. White was no longer a skin pigment, it was a badge of dishonor and betrayal. He brooded and grieved. As he was fixating on this hostile image of whites, I come along as another “whitey” who was pretending to be Jesus on the cross.  He was certain I would soon dismount from the high perch and turn out to be nothing but a Judas.

At about this time we became aware that black workers from the Montefiore hospital confronted frequent  harassment  by the police. It involved those who worked on the night shift. They would be frisked, robbed and assaulted walking to and from work. Anything they carried was confiscated. Those who resisted were badly beaten.

At the time BJ was courting a pretty black nurse . Kathy was a no nonsense nurse, yet with a gentle and sweet disposition. We were enamored of her fine character, wholesome intelligence and boundless decency. One night as the two of them were meandering in Van Cortland Park close to the hospital, two white policemen accosted the couple. “What are you two Niggers doing here. Don’t you know this place is off limits?” They frisked BJ and took his wallet and money.

BJ had a short fuse and lost control.  The cops pulled revolvers. Shooting of blacks was a common occurrence in the Bronx. That very week a demented black man in a hospital  emergency ward was shot dead by a policeman. Kathy fell to her knees embraced BJ’s legs, pleading and crying hysterically, “I beg you don’t talk back! They want to kill you. They are merely looking for an excuse.”

And to the police, “We work at the Montefiore.  My boyfriend is a doctor in the hospital. “

“The bitch is crazy, who heard of a “nigger” doctor?”  Nonetheless they backed off and walked away.

This episode persuaded our activist progressive  house staff, of which I was a leader, to take action. In cooperation with the black community, we organized  community patrols to walk people to and from the hospital to the subway station.   We also raised  an enormous stink and publicity campaign about the lawlessness of the police force.

BJ was impressed with what a few whites were ready to do and how much could be accomplished by collective action. Slowly his attitude toward me changed.  Kathy and my wife Louise became intimate friends. The four of us frequently socialized.

That year (Spring of 1950), BJ and  Kathy confided that they were planning to marry soon. Louise and I were readying to move to Boston where I was to begin a fellowship in cardiology at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.  They were hunting for an apartment.  Housing in New York City was scarce.  Week after week they would studiously search the advertising section of Sunday newspapers for housing and explore every lead, but to no avail.

The pattern was consistent. Either BJ or Kathy  would call a landlord identifying themselves as doctor or nurse at the Montefiore hospital. The response was warm and welcoming . “Come right over, we have exactly what you are looking for.” As soon as they arrived, their being black evoked a dismayed and stuttered response,  remarkable for its stereotypic sameness; “Very sorry, the apartment had just been rented.” Only to see the same flat still advertised a week later.  Other landlords were less civil, slamming the door in their face.

Louise and I suggested that the wedding take place in apartment  overlooking Van Cortland park. We also invited them to move in with us.  Once we left for Boston, at the end of June, they could take over the apartment.  To us this was an unexceptional act. Little did we realize the beehive of hostility we stirred up among neighbors and friends. Instead of the usual warm greetings, people ignored us. We were socially ostracized  and confronted  hostile racist notes in our mail box. There were even threats of physical violence against BJ and Kathy.

The wedding was on a Sunday afternoon attended by more than 100 people, officiated by the Reverend Howard Melish, a leading progressive minister in New York City.  We realized how much talent prevailed among hospital staff, with music specially composed for the occasion. This was a most egalitarian wedding attended by doctors, nurses, orderlies, cleaning staff and even one Afro-American embalmer. They all  mingled in an unusual joyous camaraderie.

By this time BJ and I were like brothers.  It therefore threw me when BJ now somewhat drunk, took me aside,  looked close into my eyes and confided, “This is the very first time I look at you mother fucker and don’t see white.”

The landlord,  a radical Jew,  took BJ  to court for squatting on his property. The law was heavily tilted against tenants. A negative verdict was preordained. Yet in human affairs little is ever predictable.  As BJ  took the stand, the court clerk collapsed. BJ asked the Judge to be excused to attend to the patient.  He moved in professionally, diagnosed the problem as simple vaso-vagal syncope,  administered to the patient effectively,  after which he returned to the witness stand.

It dawned on the Judge that this black man was a physician and a competent healer. There was an 180 degrees turn about in the court proceedings.  The Judge  angrily confronted the landlord with the question, “Do you intend to throw this gifted physician out into the street?”  The upshot was judicious, more than could be expected and far more than we had hoped for. The landlord provided the newly married couple a one bedroom flat, at a monthly  rent they could afford and close to where the two were employed.

I was amply  rewarded. BJ and Kathy’s second son, whose godfather I was, was named for me. But for reasons I could only surmise, we had not maintained contact. I am not certain whether BJ is still doctoring or even alive.

This event dredged from the distant past was occasioned  by the Gates affair. I am persuaded that no sensitivity training of police, or incantations against racial profiling, or White House beer summit will exorcise the evil of racism. While the country has travelled far, a long journey is still ahead. Much will need to happen. The black under class will have to be given a seat at the white table. Industrial jobs will have to be created by the millions to lend dignity to work and foster pride in self. Housing will have to be affordable and schools will have to educate. In this mini-list of musts, the punitive injustice system will have to be dismantled. Only then will the embers of racism at last be extinguished. Only then will the pernicious shadow of slavery be lifted from our land.

*Schwartzer is a pejorative term for blacks, the word means black in Yiddish , equivalent to “Nigger”

  1. Loury C.G. Obama, Gates and the American black man. OpEd New York Times July 26, 2009.
  2. Herbert B. Anger has its place. OpED New York Times August 1, 2009.

4 responses to “Hard Wiring of Racism in the USA

  1. Wow, what a powerful and wrenching and personally revealing and honest memoir! Such stories are needed and welcomed if for no other reason than to simply make an attempt to engage in a discussion of race and the long history of racism in this country.

    Thank you, Bernard, for this moving account of your own experience.


  2. Dr Lown is an expert on friendship. Here he describes the friendship he and his wife offered to an African American medical student and his wife at a time when such behavior was ground breaking. This is an important story. It speaks of Dr. and Mrs. Lown’s commitment and skill to build familiarity and trust with a person being unfairly sidelined in the professional realm. Lown, the elder of the two men, took an appropriate lead and seized the chance to know his resident as a junior colleague in a mentor/mentee relationship. The two men in this story seek out each other’s humanity and learn to read each other’s meanings and nuances; they treat each other with respect. This story has implications for civil behavior that could be applied to the recent Gates-Crowley dispute, a severe misunderstanding between two well meaning people with race and class differences. In regard to Gates-Crowley, President Obama spoke of a ‘teachable moment.’ In Lown’s story I see several key teaching points:

    • There are active ways to cross social and racial barriers and make and keep friends
    • A common profession is a good basis for connection
    • “The way to make friends is to invite them in for tea” – lyrics from the song, “Open House”

    For me, Lown’s story recalls a quote from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in The Boston Globe, 1982:

    “Virtue is not relative at all. It is very definite. It means love, generosity, and responsibility, not only for yourself and your family but for other people. It means not simply the ability to distinguish right from wrong, but a restless quest to do good and seek justice.”

  3. I would add one note – The story told here has much in common with Dr. Lown’s memoir “Prescription for Survival.” For those who have yet to read it – Lown formed an alliance with a Russian cardiologist, Eugene Chazov, and the two men worked together to end nuclear war. Lown and Chazov built friendship during the Cold War when the US and Russia viewed each other as mortal enemies. Their work helped pull us back from the brink. The Lown “friendship-building strategy” – well told in his memoir and continued in a different vein in this blog entry – ought to be a teaching text in classes from international citizen diplomacy to police-community relations.

  4. Paddy O'Halloran

    First of all, thank you, Dr. Lown. I have had the idea of “hard wired” racism on my mind since reading this post two weeks ago. Coincidentally, I just began a sociology course at Fordham that deals with social problems surrounding race and ethnicity. Today, the topic of racism was broached in discussion. What shocked me was how differently people in the class assessed the subject. Black and Hispanic students were candid about racism and treated it as real, while white students mentioned it merely as a disclaimer to their further ideas–“Some people may be racist, but…”, or “I know racism causes problems, but…”, and other similar statements. Racism, for the white students, was purely intellectual, but for the non-white students it was concrete. Such disparate perceptions of racism’s substance and role is unhealthy. Goaded by your words here, I suggested that racism negates obligations towards resolving the social inequalities that abound between white and minority populations; for the privileged, racism is effortless. Non-white students supported me with examples of inequality in health care, education, housing, and politics, but the discussion could not be turned towards these concrete concerns. I was shocked. “Hard wired” is utterly accurate, to the point that racism and reality are divorced in some people’s minds. What the dilemma of racism requires is recognition of its immediacy by all parts of the society it pervades.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s