Doctor decries violent culture

Surgeon says `slave mentality' leads to low achievement in young black males


Black doctors have a special responsibility to speak out against the "culture of violence" and anti-intellectualism in America that encourages failure in young black men, a prominent physician told a conference of medical students yesterday.

"You all are on the pathway to becoming dominant people, and you can change the culture," Dr. Edward E. Cornwell III, chief of adult trauma at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told an audience of about 150 minority medical students at the school of medicine.

"The culture of violence is the current health emergency. And it's not just that, it's the culture of nonachievement that says studying is `acting white,'" said Cornwell, an African-American. "That's a slave mentality to be a nonachiever because it's `acting white.' It's not polite to say that, but changing the culture isn't going to be polite."

Cornwell, a professor of surgery who operates daily on gunshot victims in East Baltimore, was a featured speaker at a conference called "The Missed Education: Examining the Shortage of Minority Men in Medicine."

The focus of the session, organized by the regional branch of the Student National Medical Association, was trying to get more black, Hispanic and Native American men into the medical profession.

Fewer than 4 percent of physicians in America are minorities, and a majority of the black medical students today are female, said Emily Haynes, director of the association's regional branch and a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The problems that rise from the paucity of minority doctors were highlighted in a 2002 report of the Institute of Medicine. This study concluded that racial minorities in the U.S. receive worse health care than whites, in part because of stereotyping by doctors and mistrust by black patients.

"Our mission is to recruit more minorities into medicine, and then retain them as medical students," said Errol Fields, a coordinator of yesterday's conference and a medical student at Johns Hopkins.

Kameron Matthews, another Hopkins medical student, said one reason young black men are less likely than black women to strive for a medical career is that they don't have enough male role models in their families and neighborhoods.

"There is an unfortunate lack of mentoring, a lack of support in elementary school up through high school for African-American males," Matthews said.

Another problem is the popularity of hip-hop culture, with rap music and videos glamorizing a thuggish, macho lifestyle that drives young black men away from scholarship, said Cornwell, who volunteers to help urban youth through the Police Athletic League.

The rapper 50 Cent has more street credibility because he was shot nine times, Cornwell said. "Like he's taking credit for what we do, as trauma surgeons. ... I am offended, as a black male and as a trauma surgeon."

Cable channels like MTV and BET earn hefty profits by playing rap videos that promote racial stereotypes and self-destructive behavior, he said. "I don't give a diddly damn about how unhip I sound," Cornwell said. "BET is just as bad, and you can B-E-T I'll continue to say it."

Cornwell recalled a time when he spoke out against rap videos to a group of MTV executives. He suggested that they insert real images of gang life into their videos, including photos from his emergency room of bloody chest wounds and crippled teenagers.

Cornwell said he was not invited back to MTV, and hasn't heard from the executives since. But he's continued to speak out against the popular culture that discourages young black men from studying. He also decries the breakdown in families that has left many young black men without male guides in life.

"What about the absentee fathers?" Cornwell asked. "White politicians are seen as patronizing if they bring this up, and black politicians have totally abdicated their responsibility on this. So black physicians must speak out."

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