Delta Air Lines snubs black women physicians

Free Press staff, wire reports | 10/22/2016, 11:43 a.m.
When Tamika Cross tried to help another passenger in distress on a recent Delta Air Lines flight, she said she ...

When Tamika Cross tried to help another passenger in distress on a recent Delta Air Lines flight, she said she was dismissed by a flight attendant who doubted that the black woman was actually a physician.

Dr. Cross, an OB-GYN based in Houston, chronicled the incident on Facebook on Oct. 9. The post has since gone viral, with more than 15,000 comments, and sparked the Twitter hashtag #whatadoctorlookslike.

The incident highlights the daily slights felt by many black women because of their race and gender, despite their accomplishments.

“I’m sure many of my fellow young, corporate America working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected,” Dr. Cross wrote in her post.

Before the situation could blow over, a second report surfaced last Sunday about a similar incident on a separate Delta Air Lines flight.

According to YAHOO! News, Dr. Ashley Denmark, D.O., who hails from South Carolina, was on a flight from Seattle to Hawaii. The trip, to attend a good friend’s wedding, was intended as a bit of a rest and relaxation period for the busy doctor, wife, and mother of two.

As soon as she heard there was a traveler in need of medical assistance, though, Dr. Denmark got up and made her presence known.

That’s when everything went awry. Dr. Denmark shared her story on her website:

“As I settled in to watch a movie and read a book, about 1 hour into our flight over the intercom, a flight attendant requested a doctor or nurse to report to front of cabin to assist a passenger. When duty calls it calls — even if you are 30,000 feet in air…”

She continued on social media: “The flight attendant didn’t believe I was a doctor and told me to have a seat while two nurses provided medical care to the passenger.”

Delta Air Lines said in a statement about the situation with Dr. Cross: “We are troubled by any accusations of discrimination and take them very seriously. The experience Dr. Cross has described is not reflective of Delta’s culture or of the values our employees live out every day.”

The Atlanta-based airline said it has reached out to Dr. Cross and other passengers from the flight and is investigating the incident. The airline never apologized to Dr. Cross in the statement.

There also is no word on whether the airline will launch a probe into Dr. Denmark’s complaint.

A report by the Washington Post points to the phenomenon of “implicit bias” as the culprit.

“Overt bias certainly exists, but there is also a growing body of scientific literature that’s revealing an even more uncomfortable truth,” according to the article. “Deep-seated unconscious biases help steer our thinking and behavior — even when we don’t realize it.”

Dr. Cross’ post immediately resonated with Sandra Ford, a pediatrician and director of public health in DeKalb County, Ga.

“It’s infuriating,” Dr. Ford said. “Medical school is your life. It takes up so much of your time, your money, your energy. To have somebody discount all of that hard work based on the fact that you’re a female of color ... it’s the most insulting thing.”

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, African-Americans comprise only 4 percent of the physician workforce. But roughly two-thirds of black medical school applicants are black women, and black people are the only racial group with a larger percentage of female than male physicians.

African-American women earned 68 percent of all associate degrees awarded to black students between 2009 and 2010, 66 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of the master’s degrees and 65 percent of the doctorates.

Dr. Ford is one of 2,800 female physicians of color in the Facebook group Mocha Medicine. On the page, the women doctors discuss the challenges they face. Many of the posts are about the racism and sexism they frequently experience.

“I can say with almost complete certainty that there is not an African-American female doctor in this country who has not given a patient a full explanation of a process or procedure, only to have them say, ‘OK, when is the doctor coming in?’ ” said Dr. Ford. “I am the doctor.”

Dr. Ford said she originally saw Dr. Cross’ post in Mocha Medicine. In it, Dr. Cross recounts jumping out of her seat to help a woman screaming for help when her husband became unresponsive on a Delta Flight 945 out of Detroit.

Attempts to reach Dr. Cross for an interview last week were unsuccessful.

Dr. Cross wrote that when she attempted to get the flight attendant’s attention to help, she was told: “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down. We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.”

Dr. Cross said that moments later, upon learning that she was a doctor, the flight attended responded, “Oh, wow, you’re an actual physician” before deferring to an older, white male doctor who came to the passenger’s aid and was not questioned.

Dr. Cross said the flight attendant later offered an apology and extra Delta Sky Miles, which she rejected.

Delta said three medical professionals identified themselves on the flight, and the doctor who ultimately helped the passenger showed his medical credentials. The airline said flight attendants are trained to collect information from medical volunteers offering to assist with an onboard medical emergency.