What does a doctor look like? Delta investigates a race-based complaint

African-American physician Tamika Cross says that Delta flight attendants refused to believe that she was a doctor when she volunteered to respond to a medical emergency aboard a flight.

David Goldman/AP/File
A Delta Air Lines jet sits at a gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in Atlanta on Thursday. The company said in a statement that it is investigating a complaint raised by a black female physician whose story has gone viral in a Facebook post.

Tamika Cross, a physician with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, was on board a flight from Detroit to Minneapolis when a fellow passenger fell ill, prompting flight attendants to call for doctor.

Dr. Cross, who is black, wrote in a Facebook post that she volunteered to help but was instructed by a flight attendant to stay in her seat.

"We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don't have time to talk to you," the unnamed crew member allegedly told Cross, according to the social media post, which had been shared more than 47,000 times as of Sunday morning, garnering more than 20,000 comments. The account spread to Twitter, too, with the hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike.

"Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it's not right," Cross wrote, noting that she is "sick of being disrespected" as a woman of color working in a professional field. While she complied with the flight attendant's instruction, a "seasoned" white male was permitted to administer aid, Cross said.

The complaint touches on a familiar refrain in contemporary America, where black professionals report experiencing racial profiling, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly.

As the number of Americans concerned "a great deal" about race relations has more than doubled in the past two years amid a rise in blatant racism, there have also been efforts to address deeper-seated racial perceptions, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Over the summer, US Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina recounted being questioned by police because of his race, and, in 2009, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his house by a white officer in Cambridge, Mass., as The Washington Post noted. In these instances, professional black men say they were profiled as looking too much like criminals. This time, Cross says she was profiled for not looking enough like a doctor.

Cross, who is a resident obstetrician and gynecologist, according to both her LinkedIn profile and the hospital's website, said that the crew scrutinized her and her credentials more so than they did for the older white man.

Delta Air Lines, which operated the flight in question, said in a statement Friday that it has launched a full investigation and that the events Cross described are "not reflective of Delta's culture or of the values our employees live out every day." The statement included a limited account of what transpired:

Three medical professionals identified themselves on the flight in question. Only one was able to produce documentation of medical training and that is the doctor who was asked to assist the customer onboard. In addition, paramedics met the flight to assist the customer further.

Flight attendants are trained to collect information from medical volunteers offering to assist with an onboard medical emergency. When an individual’s medical identification isn’t available, they’re instructed to ask questions such as where medical training was received or whether an individual has a business card or other documentation and ultimately to use their best judgment.

While an estimated 13.3 percent of Americans are black, according to the US Census Bureau, only 6.4 percent of all physicians and surgeons in the United States identify as African American, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those numbers are up slightly compared to an Association of American Medical Colleges report from 2004, when only 3.3 percent of doctors were black, as The Charlotte Observer reported.

"One of the most pressing health care challenges facing the nation is the critical need for more minority physicians," the report states.

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