By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The odds of the problems being solved quickly don’t look good. Public institutions that chiefly serve black people rarely reach parity, let alone soar. Take education, another crucial aspect of the Dream: Improvement seemed imminent 40 years ago, but crises now endlessly fester in a climate that feels entirely separate from the sunny outlook Americans still like to associate with their national character. The discussion of what to do about black/poor/urban schools has taken on an independent, insular life that might go on forever, with increasingly fewer people outside the actual discussion taking any notice. Fortunately or not, the future of a black hospital (which King/Drew initially was, and still is to many) cannot be so open-ended — success and failure are not measured in anything so subjective as test scores and exit exams, but in botched surgeries and body counts. People’s lives are at stake every moment (just as they are in education, although not as dramatically), and so we must have a solution.
The current crisis at King/Drew is, in some respects, the end of history. It is the possible end of King/Drew as a racial movement — a prospect more unsettling to its supporters than a lack of money or attention, which after all has become the norm. Losing or even diminishing King/Drew’s status as a local touchstone of unfolding freedom dreams in a black community that dwindles each year would be a terrible reminder that we have lost what we should have had but never got; it would be like watching Koreans assume control of the convenience stores and markets of South L.A. 20 years ago and realizing with a start that we never had those stores to begin with, that the economy ‰
was never even ours to cede or give away.
After years of maneuvering around the uneasy questions and bad terrain, King/Drew has come to a precipice and is being told there are no more curves left on which to learn. For those long vested in its success and those who are sick of the setbacks, who know well that achieving King/Drew is about tangibly achieving so many other dreams that lost definition long ago, this is a terrifying and liberating thought — get it right, or go home. No more waiting and no more excuses, no more sheltering dream. No time left for experiments. No going home.
In 1965, the McCone Commission, appointed by the federal government to study the root causes of the Watts Riots, found that one crucial service the area lacked was a hospital. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn immediately took up the cause, and in 1972 the hospital opened its doors at Wilmington Avenue and 120th Street. Hahn ensured that it was named after Martin Luther King Jr., the martyred civil rights leader who had provided Hahn with a golden moment when he visited Los Angeles in 1961 and Hahn turned out to be the only elected official in California to greet his plane; a black-and-white photo of that meeting hangs prominently in the foyer of the hospital’s mental-health wing. Directly across the street on the 120th side is Drew University, which opened in 1981 as the full academic complement to King. (Prior to ’81, Drew existed as a residency-training program for King, but not as a university. Drew also has a College of Allied Health, which offers certificates and independent degrees in a variety of medical support professions and never developed the questionable reputation of the medical school.) The hospital and university are collectively known as the King/Drew Medical Complex, and though one is public and the other private nonprofit, it is nearly impossible to separate their functions and fortunes. This is a public hospital bound from the beginning to private interests — but not money interests.
Consider that King/Drew grew the careers of many black doctors, sometimes exponentially, and gave their concerns about community medicine a place to live and breathe — concerns they had held at bay at places like Columbia and Walter Reed and Yale. When it opened, it became a nexus for the smallish world of black health professionals on the West Coast who came to build their résumés and fill positions and head departments that had never existed for them before. Many came and left and then came back, including just-ousted Drew University president Charles Francis and just-appointed interim president Harry Douglas, who was until recently the university’s executive vice president. Special-task-force head David Satcher once chaired Drew’s department of family medicine and in the ’70s instituted the community advisory council that has figured so prominently in the university’s fate ever since.
Like Los Angeles itself, King/Drew is not a place people tend to leave easily or permanently. Veterans refer to their multiple tenures at King/Drew as “tours of duty,” and they say they come back because there is always more that must be done, more aspects of the Dream to refine. It’s also possible that many come back because they have nowhere else to go: Career-minded black doctors and other health professionals were held down by racism and glass ceilings at other places 30 years ago, and they still are today. But there is also a belief among some staffers and others that chronic nepotism and cronyism — allowed by management and often reinforced by the community powers that be — have over the years stunted the professional and institutional growth of King/Drew. “There were a lot of people promoted because of who they knew and who they slept with,” says a former King staffer, who asked not to be identified. “There’s a whole cadre of people holding on to their power.”
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