From the beginning, King/Drew was to be something special—a hospital that reflected African American achievement and power, a model for urban hospitals nationwide.
But within three years, it had become clear that, for all the aspirations the hospital represented, it was falling far short. At times, instead of healing its patients—almost all of them black and Latino—it was killing and maiming them.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which runs the hospital, was left with a political and moral dilemma:
It could take tough, decisive action, which would surely bring protests and pickets. Or it could take the path of least resistance—issue ineffective reprimands, commission studies, fire an administrator or two—and hope the problems would go away.
The political price of inaction was small. Members of the Board of Supervisors rarely face serious electoral challenges, and the people being harmed were not politically powerful or well-connected.
So, given the choice—the distress of racial politics on the one side, the likelihood of more needless deaths on the other—the board chose to risk the latter.
Fear of being called racist
At the heart of the rhetoric surrounding the hospital has been the issue few politicians want to confront: race.
Some in the core group of hospital activists have made race a central element. Members of the Board of Supervisors and other critics have been reluctant to take on problems partly for fear of being branded racists.
“Asking about King/Drew really was like touching the third rail,” said Connie Rice, a prominent civil rights lawyer who is African American. “You would get such a voracious and vicious, racially accusatory backlash that no one would touch it.”
When supervisors talk about race-based criticism, one voice they cite is that of Ernie Smith, ombudsman for the Black Community Health Task Force, an influential grass-roots organization that is an advocate for African American interests at the hospital.
An engaging man with a PhD in comparative culture from UC Irvine, Smith (no relation to Dr. Ernie Smith, a pediatric cardiologist quoted earlier in this series) is passionate and knowledgeable about the hospital, but couches his arguments in racially bombastic language.
He has warned ominously about a Latino takeover of the hospital. In his lexicon, Garthwaite, the white physician who heads the county health department, is the “grand wizard,” an allusion to the Ku Klux Klan. Police are “pigs” and “Rottweilers.” King/Drew’s African American administrators are establishment pawns, “old hog-maw and sauce-eatin’ Negroes.”