Friday, January 4, 2008

They Don’t Feel Your Pain

In what I can only describe as just another indication of the subtle racism has become embedded in our modern society, a study was released that found that there is a large discrepancy in the dispensing of narcotic pain relievers between blacks and whites in our nations emergency rooms. Are we to understand that there are two types of pain, black pain and white pain? The sad part about this study is the majority of doctors if asked would say they prescribe medication equally between patients, however the study proves otherwise.

CHICAGO -- Emergency room doctors are prescribing strong narcotics more often to patients who complain of pain, but minorities are less likely to get them than whites, a new study finds. Even for the severe pain of kidney stones, minorities were prescribed narcotics such as oxycodone and morphine less frequently than whites.

Minorities were slightly more likely than whites to get aspirin, ibuprofen and similar drugs for pain.

In more than 2,000 visits for kidney stones, whites got narcotics 72 percent of the time, Hispanics 68 percent, Asians 67 percent and blacks 56 percent.[1]

The results of this study are frightening and insulting to me as a black man. What the study indicates is that doctors have an innate belief in some very biased ideas concerning black people and pain. All of these ideas are entrenched in racist attitudes of the worse kind. The worse type of racism is not the belligerent in your face type, because with that at least you know where it is coming from. The worse type of racism is the type that goes unnoticed, undetected even by its perpetrator. The type that knows no political or ideological boundaries, it affects liberals and conservatives; Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

I think the thing that troubles me the most about the study is what it reveals about both blacks and whites and the stereotypical roles we are still cast in. On the one hand you have the white doctors who view the black patient more as a potential drug abuser or as being more capable of handling greater amounts of pain than whites. On the other you have the black patient who accepts the stereotypical role of bearing more pain and less willing to complain. The problem with racism in America is that because we don’t confront it unless it involves nooses, inequitable justice, or police brutality; many whites believe that it no longer exists, especially in them. Because we have not had a national conversation on this subject in decades the subtler forms of race and privilege continue to go unabated. Racism is like a cancer in the soul of America and ignoring it will not cause it to go away. Just like the cancer of the body, it requires aggressive treatment and confrontation.

Whenever the presence of racism, especially in its subtler forms is encountered it must be confronted and exposed for what it is. It is my hope that someday this country will be able to confront the truth about our racist heritage and our current racial ambiguities in a national conversation that will allow us to once and for all confront the prejudice that has for too long been just under the surface. This will never happen as long as we continue to deny its existence in each of us and pretend it only affects “other” people. Being a multi-racial and multi-cultural society doesn’t mean we ignore our differences, it means we celebrate and accept our differences. We will never be a color-blind society and I for one don’t want us to be. My hope is that equality of education and opportunity will be offered to all regardless of their race, creed, or national origin. This can never happen if we continue to ignore the beast that lives in all of us.

Those doctors prescribing the medication didn’t consider themselves racist; on the contrary many of them are probably involved in many worthwhile endeavors benefiting poor and minority patients. The issue arises when we refuse to expose and acknowledge our innate prejudices, by doing so we allow them to continue unchallenged and in the end we all suffer from them. It is like the teacher who in some misguided sense of guilt may hold minority students to lower standards, believing that they are innately incapable of attaining the higher standard or the millions of white Americans who are surprised by how “articulate” Senator Obama is. Then of course who could forget the infamous restaurant scene with Bill O’Reilly where black people actually ordered and ate their food like other races, Mr. O’Reilly spoke for a lot of whites if they would only be honest.

The thing that is sorely missing from our discussions about race and privilege is honesty, honesty with each other and with ourselves. We must be able to sit down together and discuss and debate the causes of our continued division and prejudice. Of course this will never happen because currently the one thing that America has in abundance is dishonesty. Why is it that after 300 years we still think this thing is just going to “work itself out”? Hell, we’re still getting aspirin for kidney stones. I’m just glad I don’t need surgery anytime soon, I can’t imagine what they give us for gall bladder or prostate surgery; maybe some Tylenol PM.


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