January 31, 2023

As a historian of medical racism, I have watched the overwhelming media response to NFL player Damar Hamlin’s heartbreaking on-field injury with a mixture of uneasiness and disbelief. On the two cable news channels, the surprise security collapse of the Buffalo Bills and the medical drama that followed was the only story that aired. For those networks, an NFL player’s televised near-death experience was the only news worth watching.

A key element of the televised narrative focused on the state-of-the-art medical care provided to the elite athlete, in whom the team had made a significant investment. For example, the NFL’s “Emergency Action Plan” coordinated medical personnel from both teams, who administered CPR to Hamlin and appeared to have restored heart function. An automated external defibrillator was on site. 25 medical professionals were present to apply their skills to an emergency that might arise. The patient was taken by ambulance to a level 1 casualty hospital a few kilometers from the stadium.

As someone who has studied the medical care of young African-American men who are not elite in athletics or entertainment, I have found the sentimental appeals and increased media coverage of this young Black victim’s ordeal no less than disturbing. Why has medical empathy been inflated into an exaggerated and half-fake concern about the medical hazard of a 24-year-old black boy? Why did media executives decide this televised performance of racially integrated medical compassion was necessary?

No one familiar with the day-to-day racism of America’s healthcare system can view Hamlin’s world-class medical expertise without thinking of his anonymous black colleagues, whose encounters with medical workers are often traumatizing and demoralizing.

Anyone who doubts the reality of “systemic racism” in major American institutions need only read the medical literature of the last 30 years. Here you will find hundreds of reports of black medical disadvantages, related to both racial health disparities and, more ominously, racial treatment disparities, spanning the entire spectrum of medical specialties. These treatment differences can affect both the behavior of the medical staff and the medical therapies they offer. This means there are many young black patients who are unlikely to be welcomed into the ER and ICU like sports stars:

The sickle cell patient looking for painkillers who is turned away as a drug seeker. The young black man with brain pain who is stigmatized and unrecognized as a gangbanger. The young black patient who encounters racial prejudice while treating a deadly sepsis. The young black patient being treated by an inexperienced surgeon. The black child who is “grown up” and denied anti-anxiety treatments while under anesthesia.

The most egregious racial scandal in American medicine is the fact that organized medicine, unlike the NFL, has never created “contingency plans” to reduce racial differential diagnoses and treatments that cause medical harm. The leadership has ignored the infiltration of racist folklore into medical specialties from obstetrics to psychiatry. It does not examine, much less seek to regulate, the racially motivated practices of physicians that can harm Black patients. And our medical schools do very little to prepare medical students to do better.

In this context, the tremendous media concern over Hamlin’s medical condition reveals the utterly anomalous nature of this medical event. The special treatment he receives creates the temporary illusion of racially integrated medicine and health justice that does not exist for the vast majority of black Americans. This utopian fantasy of excellence in black medical care is as illusory as the pretended racial integration of the sports world itself.

John Hoberman is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Black & Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism. He has been teaching breed and medicine courses since 2001.

A version of this comment appeared in The Hill.

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