“It’s good to see you brother!”
I had never met this man, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. With a large smile on his face and a look of pride, he extended his arm to give me a handshake. “There aren’t too many of us doing what you do. I’m glad we got some representation in here.” I am a black man in the medical field. When I look around, I don’t see many people who look like me. So I have one question, “Where the brothers at?”
Interestingly, when I start to answer the question, two very disparate answers come to mind. Let’s start with the entertainment industry. In 2008, 75 percent of NBA players were black, and 65 percent were black in the NFL. Looking at these numbers, it is obvious that our brothers are in sports, right? Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t … well, maybe they don’t lie, but they can be misleading.
Let’s break it down a bit. There are 30 teams in the NBA, each typically with less than 20 players. In the NFL, there are 32 teams with no more than 58 players. Assuming a liberal estimate of 600 players in the NBA and 1,900 NFL players, that results in just under 1,700 black men in these two major American sports. OK, I’m not being fair you say; what about the other sports? Venus, Serena — we’ve got tennis covered. Tiger — there’s golf. Of course I am exaggerating, but you get the point; the number of black individuals in other professional salaried full season sports (except baseball — but less than 10 percent of the ~900 MLB players identify themselves as black) is relatively negligible. I understand that this does not include actors and musicians who are also in the entertainment industry, but how many black male musicians and actors can you count? Certainly not more than 1,000. So, with a generous 2,700 black men in professional entertainment, considering that there are over 19 million black men in this country, I can tell you with confidence that the majority of us are not there (i.e., no more than 0.14 percent of black men are in these professions).
Prison! A lot of us are certainly there. In 2009, ~850,000 black men were incarcerated. That is ~40 percent of the male prison population. Let’s think this through carefully: 2,700 professional entertainers compared to 850,000 prisoners. Not only does this baffle me, it upsets me. It upsets me for multiple reasons, not the least of which is why we make up such a high percentage of this population. Another reason this number of 850,000 upsets me is that I have fallen victim to a delusion. The delusion is this: Most black men are in prison or entertainment (and within entertainment, predominantly sports). How many times do you hear that fallacy? Reviewing the aforementioned numbers, less than 5 percent of black men are in these areas. Over 95 percent of us are elsewhere.
Black men in medicine is my focus for this article. In 2004, approximately 3.3 percent of the physician workforce was composed of black men and women. In 2011, according to the AAMC, the percentage of medical school applicants who were black males decreased to 2.5 percent. I can write a book on the issues leading to this (literally since are so many contributing factors) but that’s for a different place and time. Rather, let me very briefly focus on one thing that I am passionate about: mentoring.
I love the photo above. It captures so many elements pertaining to what young black men need. That being the case, I will briefly detail five aspects of the image that I feel are essential to maximize the mentoring process.
Presence. Perhaps most important in the mentoring relationship is the mentor’s presence. This photo was taken at the Diverse Medicine booth at the 2015 SNMA AMEC conference in New Orleans. I watched in amazement as these premedical students chatted with this mentor for nearly one hour. Their desire to gain wisdom and guidance was inspiring to the point that I had to capture the moment with a photo. It is proof to me that young black men are looking for mentors. But in order to mentor someone, you need to be present and willing.
Seniority. There is no question who is the senior member of this group. By senior I simply mean the one who is further along in his development for the topic at hand. This photo clearly relates the direction in which wisdom is being passed. Mentorship requires an understanding of roles. There should be no question who the senior member in the relationship is.
Similarity. If for no other reason, the young men in the photo can relate to mentor because they are of the same ethnic background. I want to be clear about this; some of the best mentors I have ever had are not black, so this is by no means the most important thing in mentoring. So by similarity, I do not mean solely race. You can have similar interest, similar experiences, similar humor, etc.
Attention. It seems rare nowadays for young men to look older men directly in the eyes. Not these gentlemen. The image exemplifies their attentiveness to the mentor and from that, their desire to grow and be successful is evident. Keeping the attention of a young black man in today’s world is no easy task. There are numerous distractions to overcome.
Respect. Just look at the photo. The posture, the closed lips, the separation in positioning. Need I say more?
Next time someone asks you, “Where the brothers at? Why aren’t they in medicine?” Please do not say because they are all playing sports or in prison. That is not true. There are plenty of young black men who are easily accessible, and who are just waiting for someone to mentor them. It is my firm belief that we will not be able to increase the number of black men in the medical field until we can take the imagery that I have highlighted in this photo, and put it into practice.
What we need is the presence of men with seniority in the field of medicine, who are similar to our young black men, and who can capture their attention and in doing so gain their respect. This is my vision. It might not be the best one, but it is one. And remember, where there is no vision, the people perish.
“Dr. Dale” is a physician who blogs at Diverse Medicine.