On May 11, 2021, the American Medical Association (AMA) released an 86-page “Organizational Strategic Plan to Embed Racial Justice and Advance Health Equity.” The document, produced by the organization’s Health Equity Task Force, is described by the US’s largest physician member association as a roadmap “to embed racial justice and advance health equity for years to come.” The report has received public attention for its systematic assessment of the causes and impacts of structural racism in medicine. Yet, one year after George Floyd’s murder sparked a national reckoning around racial justice, it is far from clear that documents such as this will actually guide medicine toward racial justice.
The AMA’s strategic plan is released at a time when more and more US physicians are speaking up about racism and racial injustice and pushing against the fiction of a post-racial apolitical approach to medicine and science. Some of these physicians have focused their efforts on pressuring their professional associations to be more aggressive about confronting systemic racism. These cries for association leadership on anti-racism come most strongly from medical students, residents, and racial minority constituencies. Their efforts have resulted in a range of race-based programming, public statements, and, more recently, strategic plans. These are promising developments, particularly given the troubling history of racism in many of these associations. However, members must contend with whether physician associations are the correct venue for this activism.
We express hesitancy not because—as has been argued elsewhere—physician associations should avoid controversial positions or “political” advocacy. Instead, our concern, as social scientists who research the exercise of physicians’ power in policy arenas, is about the relationship of this burgeoning anti-racism advocacy to other association advocacy. What happens when associations make public statements in support of antiracism while continuing to advance physician interests that subjugate systemically oppressed groups?
Acknowledging The Paradoxes Of Organized Medicine
Physician associations—the professional membership associations representing physici
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