Bigots and Their Enablers: Reflections on Racism, Both Individual and Systemic
By Tim Wise
And so it was that in Flint, Michigan recently, a new father—and this is a term he has earned in only the most narrow, biological sense—demanded that when his recently arrived child was sent to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the hospital where she had been born, no African American nurses were to attend to her needs, to care for her, to do what neonatal ICU nurses do, which is to say keep sick babies alive. White hands only for this white, fresh as snow child, whose father, sporting a shiny new swastika tattoo (a Christmas present no doubt from his pathetic skinhead bride) prioritized his own hatreds above and beyond the needs of his precious little girl. That the future does not bode well for her seems hardly worth saying. To be delivered from an ICU into the arms of one as unhinged as this can only, by reasonable people, be seen as a turn for the worse. Incubators and breathing machines might be preferable to having parents such as she has, through no fault of her own, inherited.
But what is worse, perhaps, than the bigotry of this one neo-Nazi—which is at least to be expected and so, can, despite its irrationality in a case such as this, remain somewhat within the realm of the banal—is that the hospital in question, Hurley Medical Center, actually capitulated to his psychotically racist demands, posting a sign on the little girl’s chart instructing the unit to disallow any black nurses from as much as touching this baby. Presumably, were Tonya Battle, a black Hurley neonatal nurse since 1988 the only nurse within arms reach of the girl as she entered cardiac arrest or as her kidneys began to shut down—both of which have been known to happen to those in a NIC-U—Battle was to scream loudly for a white nurse to come and save the child’s life. Because God forbid a black woman with 25 years experience do the job. And if she dies, well, at least her precious white skin wouldn’t have been sullied by black hands.
Hurley’s acquiescence to this insanity, in contravention of all ethical responsibility, not to mention legal obligations to treat their employees in a non-discriminatory fashion, is going to cost them no doubt, as they are apt to discover once the lawsuit currently brought against their witless administrators plays out. They are going to pay, and pay big, as they should, for their enabling of overt white supremacy. But that is hardly the most important part of this story. Just as it was not the most important part of the story back in 2000 when a heart specialist at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville did a similar thing, agreeing to the lunatic ravings of another racist white man, who demanded that his wife, who needed open heart surgery to save her life, not be attended to by any black doctor, because he didn’t want a black man to see his wife naked.
More interesting, I think, is what this story (and the earlier one from Nashville) says about racism in America, and not just of the sort evinced by one bottom-feeder, troglodytic fan of Adolf Hitler. For while we are too quick to presume racism to be merely an individual pathology manifested by individually bad people, much like the father in the story from Flint, the fact is, an incident like this illustrates as well as anything can, the way that racism continues to operate as a systemic force in the United States, civil rights laws and all our vaunted post-raciality notwithstanding.
To understand what I mean by this, consider something I am often asked as I travel the country, speaking about racism, or in reply to one or another column or book that I’ve written: namely, it is queried, why don’t I ever talk about black racism, or, just generally, racism against white people? Why, it is wondered, do I focus on racism only when it’s deployed by whites?
There are many things I could say, and do, when asked something like this. But for now, let it suffice to say that this story, from Michigan, involving a white institution as respected as a hospital bending to the whims of a fucking Nazi, is more than enough of a reason for my selective attention. And this is true for multiple reasons.
First, what the story demonstrates is how much more potent white racism is than any potentially parallel version practiced by peoples of color. Simply put, there is no way that any bigoted black person, or Latino, or Asian American, or indigenous person, could possibly have made a similar demand in the reverse direction—that no white nurses attend to their newborn—and expect to have that insistence met with approval and acquiescence. Anyone who thinks a hospital would have agreed to such a thing—to actually deny opportunity to white nurses or doctors, and to limit the care of such a child to same-race caregivers—is either so overly medicated or mentally damaged as to make further discussion impossible. In other words, even when a white racist who is likely not of substantial economic means makes a racist demand, his desires can get ratified, and in ways that not even the wealthiest person of color could expect to have happen.
And this is because—and this is what is especially pertinent to the matter of institutional racism—even if a hospital was willing to go along with the ridiculous and bigoted demands of a hateful person of color, that no whites be allowed to touch their black or brown baby, it would be virtually impossible to fulfill such a request. And why? Simple. Because given the history of unequal opportunity in medical professions, from doctoring to nursing—and also just given the demographic and power dynamics within pretty much any institution you can name—to work around white professionals, even if one wanted to, is almost impossible.
Bottom line: the hospital in this case went along with the demand to exclude blacks from attending to this child because they could. Given the history of discrimination in access to the medical profession, including nursing, and the barriers to professional practice faced by too many people of color, there exists today a more limited number of such professionals from which to draw. As such, excluding them from a particular hospital unit or assignment is hardly a huge burden for the institution in question.