The President of the United States of America cannot be a Muslim. This was the message Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson relayed on national television last week. Carson, who afterwards surged in the polls and saw spikes in campaign donations, went on to add that the religion of Islam is also “unconstitutional” — thus blatantly smearing and demonizing the nearly seven million Americans who identify as Muslims with words that were discriminatory, inflammatory and, somewhat ironically, unconstitutional.
But why does this matter to us as medical students? It matters because Ben Carson is a physician. In fact, he is a particularly distinguished physician with degrees and appointments from some of the most respected institutions in the nation. Further, he has undoubtedly treated, taught and worked with countless American Muslims. Although now retired from his illustrious career as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Carson holds 67 honorary doctorates, is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Honor Medical Society and sits on the board of directors of several leading organizations. In short, when Dr. Carson speaks, people listen.
And in hearing his words last week, I have to admit my reaction was not one of shock; the existence of the $57 million Islamophobia industry has long since robbed me of that privilege. My reaction was actually one of fear — a fear that a man who would deem me unfit for leadership on account of my faith could have been my professor, that he could have been my physician or that he could even have been my classmate. But most of all, what I feared was that someday … I could be him.
If even after decades of training, teaching and clinical practice, one could hold onto such narrow-minded and prejudiced views, what is to say that I could not be guilty of the same someday? As future physicians, what is to say that any one of us is safe from falling into the sinkholes of ignorance, xenophobia and bigotry? As now mandated by national guidelines, medical students across the United States are trained in cultural competency — this often includes case discussions surrounding issues of cultural humility, clinical experiences with diverse communities and even travel abroad for aid work or research. And, although these things are useful, they are not all-sufficient. Our training attempts to provide us with prophylaxis against prejudice and bias, but by no means does it provide us with immunity.
In fact, the science speaks for itself. Race, ethnicity, identity, orientation — these are problem areas in the medical world. Black patients receiving less effective care than white counterparts is a problem. Implicit bias — the unconscious effect of prejudiced or stereotyped judgment on decision-making — is a problem. The under-representation of minorities in the health care workforce is a problem. These are the real issues that we must be talking about.
These issues have creeped into the depths of the academic world. In 2004, a study of 1833 faculty members at U.S. medical schools found that 48 percent of physicians who identified as an underrepresented minority reported experiencing racial/ethnic bias by a superior or colleague. An even higher percentage (60 percent) reported perceiving bias in the academic environment as a whole.
The evidence is there and, as future physicians, we must recognize these are issues our generation will have to deal with. But in facing these unsavory truths, it too must be recognized that efforts are being made. At institutions across the country, we saw conversations forming around #WhiteCoats4BlackLives. At nearly every conference around the nation, sessions focusing on promoting cultural humility and increasing diversity in the workforce are occurring. At schools across the medical and health care world, a renewed focus on diversity, inclusion and better training is taking place. But time and time again, when hate rears its ugly head as it did with Dr. Carson’s comments, we are reminded that there is still a long way to go. We still have much to learn and we will do so only by pushing, by challenging and by working towards the goal that brought us here in the first place — to heal.
So today I ask as both a future physician and an American Muslim: Dr. Carson, would you accept me as your doctor?