Diversity initiatives in U.S. medical education, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were geared toward increasing the representation of African Americans—blacks born in the United States whose ancestors suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws. Over time, blacks and, subsequently, underrepresented minorities in medicine (URMs), became a proxy for African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans, thus obscuring efforts to identify and recruit specifically African Americans. Moreover, demographic shifts resulting from the recent immigration of black people from Africa and the Caribbean have both expanded the definition of “African American medical students” and shifted the emphasis from those with a history of suffering under U.S. oppression and poverty to anyone who meets a black phenotype.
Increasingly, research indicates that African American patients fare better when their physicians share similar historical and social experiences. While all people of color risk discrimination based on their skin color, not all have the lived experience of U.S.-based, systematic, multigenerational discrimination shared by African Americans. In the high-stakes effort to increase URM representation in medical school classes, admissions committees may fail to look beyond the surface of phenotype, thus missing the original intent of diversity initiatives while simultaneously conflating all people of color, disregarding their divergent historical and social experiences. In this Perspective, the authors contend that medical school admissions committees must show greater discernment in their holistic reviews of black applicants if historical wrongs and continued underrepresentation of African Americans in medicine are to be redressed.