On Saturday Jan. 22, about two dozen white nationalists dressed in identical beige khaki pants and dark hoodies protested in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston holding a bedsheet with black lettering reading “B and W Hospital Kills Whites.”
They passed out flyers condemning by name two doctors associated with the hospital and Harvard Medical School who have been working with Mass General Brigham to establish greater equity in health care for non-white communities.
One of the doctors, Dr. Michelle Morse, teaches at Harvard Medical School and is chief medical officer for the New York City Health Department. She was formerly on staff at Brigham and Women's.
The other, Dr. Bram Wispelwey, is an internal medicine and public health doctor at Brigham and Women's and also teaches at Harvard Medical School.
Photographs of Morse and Wispelwey — a Black woman and a white man — were featured in the leaflets that were passed out at the Brigham demonstration, condemning what the far right-wing protestors called “preferential health care policies for non-white patients.”
What they and other conservative activists describe as anti-white, Morse and Wispelwey say is simply a new approach to medicine that addresses the health concerns of those who have consistently been left behind as modern medicine advanced.
Bringing equity to medicine
“What I'm trying to do is hold the medical industrial complex accountable for the harms that it's caused to communities of color and to other communities and push for racial justice and health equity in all of the institutions that I'm involved in and in partnership with the many communities that I serve,” Morse told GBH News. “And I think ultimately in the COVID era, part of what that means is a real serious push to make inequities more visible.”
Wispelwey said his team found it was hard to address institutional racism in medicine — such as disparities in how patients are admitted for heart surgery — using “racially blind” methods. “And so we wanted to take a race-explicit approach,” Wispelwey told GBH News. “We can't wait until these predominantly white institutions sort of come around ... we want to actually make sure our patients are taken care of in the best way possible right now.”
Wispelwey and Morse were among a group of doctors at the Brigham in 2015 who questioned why data showed Black and Latinx patients with heart failure were more likely than white patients to end up in general medicine rather than the cardiology unit, where patients have better outcomes. That led to a study that showed a probable link between institutional racism and heart failure; consequently a program was established at Mass General Brigham that aims to improve access for Black and Latinx patients who historically have not had equitable access to specialized cardiology care.
That program is one of many initiatives developed by Mass General Brigham under the headingUnited Against Racism that serve as roadmaps for delivering services to underserved communities.
Morse and Wispelwey published an article in the March 2021 Boston Review, titled “An Anti-racist Agenda for Medicine” that laid out their approach to health care based on a medical model of critical race theory, and calling for "medical restitution" for Black people, who have long been excluded from first rate care. The doctors were promptly denounced by a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, who derided their advocacy for prioritizing non-white patients for certain procedures as “political eugenics.”
A reader posted The Boston Review article on Twitter where it received hundreds of retweets, including, Morse said, “by some right wing person, basically describing Bram’s and my work as racist or as somehow unfair to white people.”
“This is what triggered this whole backlash,” Wispelwey said. He said the intimidation began in the spring of last year with “really extensive threats, not just to us personally, but to our hospital. And then most recently last week when a white nationalist and neo-Nazi group showed up at our hospital.”
Morse and Wispelwey are part of a growing number of doctors nationwide leading programs to make the medical profession more inclusive and to improve health outcomes for communities of color.
They are also among a cadre of doctors across the country who are confronting mounting intimidation on social media, and threats of violence.
There’s little data documenting the number of social media and death threats directed at doctors engaged in anti-racism work in medicine, but Dr. Manisha Sharma, a California based family medicine physician, keeps a running tally of colleagues who are active in the social justice movement and have received hate mail and worse, and says it is widespread.
“In recent years, I definitely had an uptick in friends who have, like, literally received death threats,” she said. Sharma, who is of South-Asian descent, said American medicine is already a lonely place for Black and brown doctors, but added “when you're Black and brown, doing justice, anti-racist work, you're even more so alone.”
Sharma said the hate mail she’s received included misogynistic and racist comments. After appearing on a Fox News broadcast she said she received a letter from an anesthesiologist in Texas “to tell me he wished that slavery was still there because I needed to find my place.”
Doctors leading anti-racism efforts within their institutions say they have had their personal information made public, been screamed at and even followed home.
A national problem
In May 2021 — almost a year after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — the American Medical Association announced astrategic plan to dismantle structural racism “starting from within the organization, acknowledging that equity work requires recognition of past harms and critical examination of institutional roles upholding these structures.” The plan was met with overwhelming support by AMA members but some doctors balked at the notion that American medicine was influenced by structural racism. In the fall, the AMA released a follow up “Health Equity Guide,” to help physicians dismantle racist practices.
The dissenting viewpoints within the medical community were amplified byright-wing media, which reduced the plan’s focus on past and present injustices to a catchphrase: “critical race theory,” which conservatives have falsely described as anti-white pedagogy.
The target of the ensuing vitriol was an author of the guide, Dr. Aletha Maybank, the AMA’s chief health equity officer and senior vice president. The death threats started coming in almost immediately, she said.
“When you start to challenge narratives, such as the myth of meritocracy or the hierarchy of human value based on skin color, that really gets to the truth, that really instills fear in people,” she told GBH News. “There were messages on social media. You know, things about people should they organize and get their guns.” Most unnerving, said Maybank, was finding graffiti written on the door of her home.
The AMA hired a security firm to scrub her social media accounts and assigned a professional security detail to protect her during speaking engagements.
Maybank said doctors and other health care specialists in her anti-racism medical network have also been targeted. She cites a collegue, Monica McLemore, who has a doctorate in nursing and teaches at the Center for Vulnarable Populations at the University of California SF School of Medicine who made light of harrowing experiences in a recent tweet .
Y'all. Insurrection was a year ago...This is why I catalog/maintain my hate mail & death threats. I also keep a list of those of you who keep quote tweeting me bringing these folx into my mentions & emails before blocking y'all. https://t.co/Ee9oOkiJUZ— Monica McLemore PhD, MPH, RN #McLemoreMReverywhere (@mclemoremr) January 31, 2022
Dr. Camara Jones is long accustomed to receiving hate mail. She is a family physician, epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association, and much as Derrick Bell is regarded as the originator of critical race theory in the teaching of law, Jones is viewed as one of the authors of a critical race framework for medicine focused on equity, inclusion and diversity.
“My core philosophy with regard to medicine and health equity is that, first of all, that health equity is a process. So it's not some magical outcome that we're just all of a sudden going to find ourselves in," she said. "Achieving health equity requires three things: Valuing all individuals and populations equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and providing resources according to need.”
For three decades, as she focused on ending what author Harriet A. Washington termed “Medical Apartheid,” she was flooded with unsigned profane letters, and, in more recent times, digital attacks. But Jones, speaking to GBH News from her home in Atlanta, says the racial backlash has never been as severe and potentially violent as it is now.
She attributes the backlash to Donald Trump. “The rightness of even talking about these issues came under assault with the 45th president,” she said. Jones says Trump has falsely and cynically preyed on the fears of white Americans. "That stoking of fear has made those who value social justice targets, because we are upsetting people’s comfort.”
Neo-Nazi protest in Boston
There was not a swastika in sight at the demonstration outside the Brigham. But the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting traced an email address on the flyer to a fascist group that was founded in Worcester in 2019. The men behind the banner and ski masks standing on the sidewalk were members of the Nationalist Social Club — described by the Anti-Defamation League as “a neo-Nazi group with small, autonomous regional chapters in the United States and abroad."
The group has enjoyed little success, said Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, until recently. “They've drawn more racists and white supremacists and antisemites into their ranks,” Trestan said. “And we know this because their most recent demonstration in front of the Brigham and Women's Hospital actually drew more people than we've seen at previous protests that they've organized.”
A 2021 ADL Report said incidents of white supremacist propoganda surged across the U.S. the previous year to "alarming levels," and concluded that NSC is one of three groups responsible for 92% of the activity.
The doctors targeted by the group said they remain undeterred by the threats and hate mail.
“The fact that you have an avowed white nationalist neo-Nazi group show up at a hospital really speaks to the work that still remains to be done. And it's just so important that the work continue,” Wispelwey said.
Morse agreed. ”We should be doing a bajillion times more than this, even more actively and more directly and with bigger and more resources.”