Race, Politics and Medical Care

John L. Mitchell, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7, 2006

When its doors opened seven years after the 1965 Watts riots, the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center was a symbol of pride and achievement in the largely segregated black enclaves of South L.A., galvanized by a thirst for more jobs, education and healthcare.

Today there is still a strong commitment to the troubled institution, which faces a best-case scenario of becoming a smaller hospital under the management of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. But the crisis has exposed fissures among the black leadership of South L.A., King/Drew’s historical backers, highlighting a lack of cohesiveness among politicians, including the regions’ three African American congresswomen.

The crisis has also raised questions about whether this leadership can deal with a hospital whose mission has evolved: Initially it was a black institution serving a largely black population; now it serves a region that is increasingly populated by Latino immigrants.

The current political leadership has been criticized for not being up to the task and for regarding King/Drew as a legacy, rather than a hospital.

“King is a monument to race-based politics, and race-based politics is dying and King is dying,” said J. Eugene Grigsby, an urban planner who heads the National Health Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding innovative approaches to healthcare in underserved areas.

“We are a community looking for direction,” he said. “Until we recognize that the black community can’t survive unless it becomes interdependent with other communities, we will be increasingly marginalized.”

An L.A. renaissance

Black Los Angeles experienced a renaissance during the post-civil rights 1970s, a period of economic prosperity and political accomplishments, a period when some racial barriers were overcome.

South Los Angeles was still largely segregated, but more blacks were being elected to political office, among them Tom Bradley, who was elected to his first term as mayor of Los Angeles a year after King/Drew opened. The start of the massive influx of Latino immigrants was a decade away.

King/Drew, in Willowbrook just south of Watts, was part of that black renaissance, but almost from the beginning, the hospital was beset with problems, its medical accomplishments tarnished by a pattern of neglect and incompetence that over time earned the hospital the nickname “Killer King.” In 2005, the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a five-part series exposing conditions at the hospital, which was rated among the worst in the nation.

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Said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, “You still have a small core of influential believers of the King/Drew mission, but the community has shifted away. Most of the middle-class African Americans who came from that community have moved on.”

Within a five-mile radius of the hospital, the African American population declined from 64% in 1980 to 35% in 2000, while Latinos increased from 25% to 59% over the same period, according to a Times analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the battle to keep King/Drew afloat continues to be waged predominantly by African Americans, suggesting to some an unwillingness to acknowledge that the hospital’s mission has changed.

Political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson disagrees. The founder of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and a passionate advocate for King/Drew said Latinos are not being excluded; rather, they are not getting involved.

“They see it as a black issue, not a Latino one,” Hutchinson said. “In their minds, they see no need to get involved in King Hospital even though it’s their folks who use the hospital. They haven’t done a thing, and quite frankly they are not going to do a thing.”

Not every assessment is so dire: Mark Q. Sawyer, director of UCLA’s Center for the study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, said poor blacks and poor Latinos have more in common with one another than they do with others, even in their own ethnic groups.

“They share similar problems, such as childhood obesity and diabetes,” he said. “They will be able to come together around issues of interdependence.”

Michael Preston, USC professor of political science and observer of local politics, envisions a greater collaboration between blacks and Latinos in charting the hospital’s future, but that direction may have to wait for a younger generation of leaders.

“This is an issue of the older leadership. They fought for the hospital, and they are going to the bank on it,” he said. “The only way the younger ones are going to see it is if someone shines a light on it.”

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