On June 25, 2021, White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL), a national organization of medical students, published its statement of “vision and values.” The “dominant medical practice in the United States has been built on the dehumanization and exploitation of Black people,” the document read, and WC4BL exists to rid the medical system of this allegedly pervasive racism. Doing so requires not only “dismantling anti-Black racism, white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy,” but also “dismantling fatphobia,” embracing “Black queer feminist praxis,” and “unlearning toxic medical knowledge.”
Terminology aside, WC4BL is no fringe organization. It boasts more than 70 chapters at medical schools across the country, including at such top institutions as the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin. In 2020, when physicians around the country participated in George Floyd protests, their rallies took the organization’s name. Now the group hopes to keep the movement going by injecting the concepts of identity politics into the practice of medicine.
WC4BL seeks to transform the U.S. medical system. White supremacy, according to the statement, “permeates every dominant American institution, including healthcare.” Part of the reason is the current credentialing system for medical doctors. “Physicians have utilized violence to oust women and femme healers” primarily through “the professionalization of the medical field,” the statement reads. “The power and prestige given to medical doctors in the U.S. today is not a direct result of scientific advancement or service to the larger community, but the intentional and often violent consolidation of power.”
It can be easy to forget that the organization focuses on medical schools; evidently, equity in medicine also requires remaking society. “Black queer feminists,” it explains, “have expanded socialism to further movements that critically approach class, gender, race, and sexuality.” WC4BL is “abolitionist,” calling for the end of both prisons and police. Because prisons are associated with negative health outcomes, “being dedicated to health requires us to abolish (not reform) prison and surveillance systems.” The organization condemns “fatphobia” and “cisheteropatriarchy,” and proposes to “destigmatize and decriminalize drug use,” “decriminalize sex work,” offer “universal” access to abortion, “end the use of BMI,” and remove gatekeepers from “gender-affirming healthcare.”
WC4BL has every reason to play a strong hand. For more than a year, medical schools around the country have followed its lead. The Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) recent guide to anti-racism planning highlights WC4BL by name, suggesting that universities develop a scorecard “similar to the White Coats for Black Lives’ Racial Justice Report Card.” That’s a significant endorsement. The AAMC cosponsors the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which accredits medical schools.
WC4BL’s other source of influence has come through direct pressure on medical schools. In June 2020, chapters of WC4BL around the country succeeded in effectuating change at medical schools. At UC Davis, WC4BL presented recommendations and its Racial Justice Report Card to the School of Medicine. The administration found them “largely feasible” and responded by creating the Administrative Action Plan to Address Racial Justice. The plan institutionalized, among other things, “a clear system to ensure that perpetrators of racial microaggressions are required to complete corrective action.” Meantime, the school of medicine at the University of Utah received demands from its chapter of WC4BL on June 12, 2020. By December 9, the School of Medicine’s Executive Committee had approved a long version of those demands, declaring that “Racism is a Public Health Crisis” and updating student evaluations to solicit feedback on the “cultural humility” of faculty.
At Columbia University, WC4BL played a part in inspiring the medical school’s anti-racism initiative. One top recommendation in Columbia’s plan involves creating “faculty development” run by “individuals grounded in critical race theory.” At Michigan Medicine, the WC4BL chapter sent a letter demanding a curriculum redesign that employs “an intersectional framework that incorporates critical race theory.” Michigan Medicine adopted that demand almost verbatim, adding only that the new curriculum should draw from the work of Ibram X. Kendi.
These medical schools are being forthright about their new priorities. White Coats for Black Lives has already had much success in its mission to transform medical education. The next stop will be the medical field itself.
Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images