American Academy of Pediatrics Reckons With Past Racism
In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics openly confronts—and apologizes for—past racism and commits to building a better future without discrimination.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is apologizing for past racism toward its first Black members, Dr. Alonzo deGrate Smith and Dr. Roland Boyd Scott, in a formal policy statement. Both were admitted to AAP in 1945, six years after their initial applications were rejected based on race.
To authentically move forward on an equity agenda—which includes advancing diversity and inclusion of leadership and members and setting out on a path toward tackling bias and discrimination—it was important to look within, said Joseph Wright, M.D., a member of AAP’s board of directors and chief medical officer and senior vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System.
“As a board, we really believe we needed to understand our own history before we could go out and live up to any kind of leadership role in this space as an organized medical group,” Wright said.
AAP’s policy statement, “Truth, Reconciliation, and Transformation: Continuing on the Path to Equity,” quotes transcripts from AAP Executive Board minutes, which reveal the racist attitudes and beliefs of some early AAP leaders. The policy statement will be published in the September issue of Pediatrics.
At the time of their initial membership applications in 1939, deGrate Smith and Scott were clinicians and faculty at the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. They faced systemic barriers, including segregation in their local chapter of the American Medical Association and the inability to gain admitting privileges at local hospitals. When they applied to AAP, they were blocked from membership for six years, through several meetings of the AAP Executive Board.
The AAP has been on an equity path for some time, Wright said, and in light of heightened attention to racial injustice sweeping the nation, it was the right time to put together this transformative reconciliation statement. “We knew this was the moment to state very clearly where we stand as an organization and how we recognize what’s going on in our own house, and how we intend to move forward,” he said.
AAP does not have explicit bylaws language against discrimination. It is now issuing a bylaws referendum to include language that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
“I would encourage other associations, as they look at their own history, to make sure this isn’t assumed and there is actually declarative language and an approach to executing diversity and inclusion—and that the record states it,” Wright said.
The statement comes on the one-year anniversary of the release of another AAP policy statement, “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health,” which identified racism as a core social determinant of health and a driver of health inequities. Wright noted that that statement is especially relevant now as many minority populations are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Wright said that every day in his work he lives with the reality of what that means for communities that have been historically disenfranchised and marginalized. “It’s a pivotal moment,” he said.
For membership organizations in particular, taking leadership responsibility for past racism is critical, Wright said.
“This is how you broaden the tent and get more people involved,” he said. “That’s what you want as an organization, to really appeal to the broadest swath of your constituency and have them be included.”
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