Black Surgeon’s Claim Details Racism at UCLA

May 24, 2012 by  


UCLA Associate Professor Dr. Christian Head has filed suit against the University of California Board of Regents and two administrators of the UCLA Medical Center alleging a decade-long campaign of discriminatory acts.

By Betty Pleasant

pic by gary mccarthy los angeles wave
Picture by Gary McCarthy, Los Angeles Wave

A highly regarded African-American surgeon and UCLA associate professor recently filed a lawsuit against the University of California Board of Regents and the administrators of the UCLA Medical Center for implementing a decade-long campaign of discriminatory acts against him — the most egregious being the public depiction of him as a big black gorilla being sodomized by a White man.

In a 40-page complaint filed in Superior Court on April 17, Dr. Christian Head, a tenured and history-making head and neck surgeon at UCLA, describes a litany of racial bullying, badgering, harassment and overt mistreatment he has endured virtually from the day he accepted an assistant professor appointment to the UCLA Medical School faculty in 2002.

Prior to his UCLA appointment, Dr. Head, 50, launched the UCLA Johnson Cancer Center Tumor Lab, which was has been deemed successful and reportedly has yielded valuable research and benefited many of the patients at UCLA and worldwide. This was followed by his receipt of the 2002 National Institute for Health National Cancer Institute Faculty Development Award that same year, and by about 10 awards and 10 research grants in the years hence.

Before UCLA picked him to teach, Dr. Head had conducted neuro-otology research at UCLA for two years, served a head and neck surgery residency for six years at UCLA and interned in surgery for one year at UCLA. Yet, he was publicly regarded by his UCLA supervisors as someone less than a doctor and unworthy of his teaching appointment at that university. (Dr. Head earned his medical degree in 1993 from Ohio State University College of Medicine, then served a year-long surgery internship at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and became certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology in 2003. He was named “Most Innovative Surgeon” by Black Enterprise in 2010.)

Dr. Head became the first African-American in head and neck surgery to become a UCLA faculty member and then promoted to associate professor; he is the only Black head and neck surgeon at the place and he is currently one of only two Black faculty members in UCLA’s Department of Surgery. (The other one is Dr. Langston Holly.)

According to his lawsuit, Dr. Head’s Black presence rankled his supervisors to the point that they were driven to flagrant racism. According to the complaint, Dr. Marilene Wang, a full professor who supervises Dr. Head, was dismissive of his qualifications and repeatedly referred to him as “an affirmative action hire” and “part of the university’s affirmative action program” in conversations with medical colleagues despite his training, awards and certification in his speciality.

The suit states that Dr. Wang said Dr. Head “and doctors like him — who are African-American, were the reason for failed hospitals like King Drew.” It also claims that she stated her intentions to prevent Dr. Head’s promotions, his ability to get full-time equivalents, tenure and advancement. She is claimed to have stated she “intended to take action to destroy Dr. Head’s career at UCLA.”
Toward that end, Wang reportedly issued Head nothing but negative supervisor and peer evaluations until the medical school’s dean, the late William F. Friedman, ordered her to stop in accordance with the 2004 Equal Employment Oopportunity Resolution enacted after she called Head an “affirmative action hire.”

Head said Wang did stop issuing him scurrilous evaluations until Friedman died in August 2005. “Then, she just picked up where she stopped,” Head said.

Dr. Head claimed to be a victim of a double whammy in terms of race hatred in his workplace, as the complaint states Dr. Gerald Berke, chairman of the Head and Neck Surgery Department in which Head works, directed residents (doctors in training) not to work with Dr. Head and denied him teaching opportunities and assistance with his cases. Head asserts that Berke joined Wang in making inappropriate racial comments and insinuations about him and all Blacks over the past four years.

For example, Berke is said to have openly mocked the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, and, upon learning that Dr. Head’s African-American niece had died, Berke asked, “Did she overdose?” And Berke looms large in the sodomizing gorilla atrocity we’ll get to soon (I want to keep you reading!).

According to the court document, Dr. Head — who is married to a cardiologist and has two children — had taken none of the offenses committed against him lightly, for he had complained through all the university’s proper channels in his fruitless attempt to end the discriminatory treatment his two supervisors were affording him. But to no avail.

In fact, every time he lodged an official complaint, he was retaliated against for having done so. For example, his number of clinic days were reduced, his hospital privileges were threatened, his money was treated funny — so much so that in August 2008 Dr. Head received a paycheck in the amount of 48 cents and for the following month, a paycheck was issued to him in the amount of 23 cents! His salary was $315,000 a year.

Now, the gorilla. At the end of each year, the UCLA Head and Neck Department and its resident class holds a closing ceremony and party attended by the faculty, staff, chairmen/women, residents and spouses at which the residents put on a year-end slide show under the supervision of Berke. One such ceremony and party featured a slide show in which Dr. Head was the unfortunate star.

The show consisted of about 30 or 40 slides, of which about half were reportedly about Dr. Head, and one in particular plowed new fetid ground that led directly to this lawsuit. It was a picture of a big, black hairy gorilla that had Dr. Head’s face Photoshopped on the gorilla, who was being sodomized by a white man wearing Berke’s Photoshopped face. “When this slide was shown, Wang and others in the crowd laughed that Dr. Head was ‘being screwed by his boss,’” the lawsuit states.

There were about 200 people at the event but everybody didn’t find it funny, though. Dr. Joel Sercarz, professor of surgery, was still so offended by “The Gorilla Slide” that he sent an email to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block after he made a stirring campus-wide call for “tolerance, civility and respect” last month.

“I appreciate your concern about diversity and tolerance,” Dr. Sercarz wrote, “But why allow my colleague, Dr. Head, an African-American physician to be depicted at a UCLA event with his head superimposed on the body of a gorilla? You are aware of this, aren’t you?” Dr. Sercarz has received no reply to his March 10 email to Chancellor Block.

Dr. Head is not only suing the University of California regents for doing nothing to stop the racial terror meted out to him, but he’s suing Berke and Wang as individuals, as well. He is demanding a jury trial and is seeking general and compensatory damages for lost salary, both front and back pay, bonuses, benefits … punitive and exemplary damages against Berke and Wang and for damages to his credit, for prejudgment interest at the maximum rate allowed by law and for attorneys’ fees pursuant to the various state, labor and civil codes.

“This lawsuit is an action of last resort,” Dr. Head said. “I have made numerous complaints and I have tried every avenue possible within the university to solve this. The only redress left is in a court of law,” he said.

Dr. Head has the full support of the Beverly Hills NAACP Chapter, to which he turned for assistance last summer. “We are outraged, horrified and repulsed by the discriminatory treatment of Dr. Head, a leading surgeon at UCLA Medical Center,” said Ron Hasson, the chapter president. “This type of wrongdoing by the UCLA Medical Center and UC Regents, for that matter, is outrageous.

“There are so few Black surgeons at UCLA; we now understand why and demand that appropriate action be taken against this discrimination and repulsive activity and those responsible for it be disciplined.”

Wang did not return my page when I sought her comments Tuesday. I will try again to reach her and Berke next week, because I really, really, really want to talk to these people.

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