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Fulfilling the Wrong Dream

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The hospital named for Martin Luther King Jr. was supposed to be a realization of the civil rights hero's dream. From the nightmare of the Watts riots would spring one of the best hospitals in America to serve the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles County. Yet as The Times' series published last week made indisputably clear, today that hospital is one of the nation's worst, and the county Board of Supervisors bears full responsibility for the patients who suffered and died there. The supervisors knew just how badly the King/Drew Medical Center was broken but failed for years to do anything about it.

How did things go so wrong for so long before anyone acted to fix them?

A closer reading of King/Drew's history offers a clue. What goes unsaid of the hospital born of the 1965 riots is that it was conceived as much to create jobs as to heal patients.

The state McCone Commission, appointed to probe the causes of the riots, did not include a hospital in its top three recommendations -- more jobs, better education and improved police relations. At least, not directly. The shocking health disparity separating black from white Los Angeles was barely mentioned in the 101-page report, which included an entire chapter on the need for jobs. Two years later, a follow-up report lauded the work begun on what would become King/Drew by noting that "over 1,000 jobs will result for persons who live in the vicinity of the proposed hospital."

It's not that jobs weren't needed. Many of the area's ills, from hypertension to homicide, had roots in poverty and unemployment. They still do. But from the beginning, jobs -- who got them and kept them -- came to be seen as the measure of the hospital's success. Patient care was a distant second.

Public institutions that function as job factories, run by cronyism and protected by powerful politicians, are nothing new. But King/Drew's origins in one of the nation's worst race riots scared off even the most cursory oversight. The hands-off culture established in its earliest days protected dedicated employees and slackers alike. No one would be held accountable.

County supervisors, led by Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and her predecessor in the district, averted their eyes to botched care and patient deaths rather than take on this public works project and risk being called racially insensitive. Their cowardice -- it's hard to describe it any other way -- harmed and killed constituents who were mostly poor and virtually all black or Latino.

There's No Excuse

Nor is there any excuse for how Rep. Maxine Waters and other elected officials defended the deadly status quo at King/Drew -- a hospital so substandard that any other neighborhood in Los Angeles would have soundly rejected it.

If not an excuse, history does offer an explanation for why so many African Americans today reflexively support and defend King/Drew and are suspicious of outside criticism.

Not quite a year after the Watts riots, a black man was driving his pregnant wife from South Los Angeles to Big County, as County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights was then known. He tied a white handkerchief to the antenna of his car to signal an emergency. A police officer stopped him for speeding. A widely protested coroner's inquest would later rule that the officer's pistol discharged accidentally. Driver Leonard Deadwyler, mortally wounded, slumped bleeding onto his wife's lap.

The white-handkerchief shooting, though 38 years ago, is a vivid communal memory that outsiders and newcomers don't share of what life was like in South Los Angeles -- black Los Angeles -- before it had a public hospital at all. From this vantage point, King/Drew is a symbol of self-sufficiency, not the foundering hospital that outsiders see. And this is not the only story framing that view.

Consider the broader national context. The year King/Drew opened, in 1972, the Associated Press broke the story of the ongoing Tuskegee experiment begun 40 years earlier. The U.S. Health Service study on the progression of syphilis followed 399 black men from Alabama without ever telling them they had the disease, even after penicillin was found to cure it in 1947. Small wonder that African Americans in Los Angeles or anywhere else distrusted hospitals -- except those rare ones run largely for and by blacks.

If only more community leaders and activists -- from both inside and outside Los Angeles' black community -- had found the courage to speak up for the victims of King/Drew's failings, to point out that lives lost to lowered expectations were no less precious than the lives once lost to racism.

Broken Promises

King/Drew has not been the McCone report's only broken promise, judging by the blight surrounding the hospital.

Demographically, of course, the area has changed dramatically. Latinos are now the majority. But there are still too few jobs, too many lousy schools and too little hope for those left behind.

What else has not changed in the almost 40 years since the Watts riots is the poor health of the area's residents. Los Angeles County is divided into eight health-service regions. The one served by King/Drew leads all others in deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, flu -- and homicide. It has the highest rate of teen births and of low-birth-weight babies. Its infant mortality rate, though better than it was in 1965, remains the highest in the county. What matters to Los Angeles County's neediest residents is not King/Drew's past but their own future. What should matter to everyone is ensuring that they get not a public works project but the decent healthcare they deserve.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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