"No," he says, "I'm a scholar. In scholarly circles we use the term 'activist' to demean someone." Then he says, "I'm an activist with evidence." But he adds, "When you try to publish a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, you won't get published if you come off looking like you have an activist agenda. To publish in the medical community, you have to look like you don't care about the outcome."
"For Billy, it's not just about feeling bad for poor people," says Kevin Heslin, Cunningham's former student, now a researcher at Drew University. "Billy keeps an eye on the bottom line, which in the business of medical research is publishing." (To get tenure, Cunningham published 10 papers in two years — a level of productivity most academics could only dream of.) David Carlisle puts it this way: "For the first time in history, African-Americans in Billy's generation have had access to mainstream research capabilities." Cunningham is using this opportunity to show us that we need to understand minority communities to understand minority medical problems. And in fact, this approach is much more difficult than just saying minorities' problems stem from poverty.
In the medical academy, African-American professors are rare. African-American professors who are published as widely as Cunningham are even more rare. He has pushed physicians to a new level of care. He has pushed policymakers to fund minority research in ways that were unthinkable before he started writing proposals. But he still has a long way to go. He is a new kind of physician in a new field, breaking ground in places most people never walk.
"This group at UCLA is revolutionary," Cunningham tells me at the end of one of our conversations. "We are activists investigating who we are."