Diversity-Management Fail: Racist Prank Escalates to Lawsuit at UCLA

Dr. Christian Head was told “not to make a stink” about the humiliating stereotype. Here’s how this racial-discrimination lawsuit emphasizes the need for diversity management.

Dr. Christian Head, M.D.A recent racial-discrimination lawsuit is bringing to light the lack of diversity management and accountability at UCLA’s School of Medicine. Its administrators failed to take action against students who publically demeaned Black medical professor Dr. Christian Head.

A petition on change.org, started by NAACP national board member Willis Edwards, is rallying the community to support Dr. Head. As of this morning, 83,534 signatures had been collected.

Joking Gone Too Far? Or Racism & Retaliation?

As part of an annual “roast” at UCLA, medical students created an image of a gorilla on all fours with Dr. Head’s face. A naked white man—with supervisor Dr. Gerald Burke’s face superimposed—was pictured sodomizing the gorilla.

This photo was displayed at a school-sponsored graduation event in 2006 to more than 200 people, which included faculty, professional peers, students and visiting guests. Other slides were also shown that implied Dr. Head was underperforming as a professional.

“I’ve never had to think about things before, the racial aspect, in terms of white and Black before, especially at work,” says Dr. Head in the video. After the image was displayed, “I pulled [the supervisor] aside and I said to him, ‘How can you let this happen?’… and he just smiled and chuckled.”

Want a Career? Keep Quiet

Other UCLA officials also were quick to dismiss Dr. Head’s requests for disciplinary action against the students. He was told by fellow faculty members: “If you want tenure and you make a big stink about this, they’re going to crush you.”

Dr. Head did receive tenure during this time period. He is the first Black professor to receive tenure in the Head and Neck Surgery department and one of only two Black teaching surgeons on staff. However, his pay subsequently was cut and he claims he was denied prime teaching opportunities that could have advanced his career.

He filed the lawsuit in late April in Los Angeles County Superior Court against The Regents of the University of California, a 26-member board that appoints and governs the university leadership. Foley Lyman Law Group is representing Dr. Head.

UCLA’s response to the lawsuit in the Los Angeles Times featured a statement from spokesman Phil Hampton: They had “investigated this matter and found that the evidence does not substantiate the claims of unlawful activity.”

Diversity in the Workplace: 3 Ways to Stop Racial Bias

It was UCLA administrators’ “lack of action” that hurt the most, explains Dr. Head in the video above.

This need for accountability and mindfulness is just as critical to corporations that are looking to build more diverse and inclusive workplaces for employees.

For more on diversity management best practices, read Diversity-Management Case Studies Reveal Why Companies Rise & Fall in the DiversityInc Top 50. Also, read DiversityInc’s Black History Month Facts & Figures and The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for Blacks.

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  • Speechless right now. The only thing I can utter is “wow”! It seems that a certain portion of our population has completely lost its collective mind. I see a direct correlation between these kinds of things happening in the year 2012 and the backlash of our having a black president. Suddenly, we need teaparties, there an “upsurgent” of people, who know better, making public racist statements, and the internet is ripe with people spewing hate into the universe.
    It is only too apparent that the faculty, management, administration, supervisors, colleagues, et al completely agreed with the statement the students fully intended to make – that no matter how accomplished you may be; if you are not white, then you are incompetent and you are nothing but an animal.
    Shame, shame, shame. Sorry folks (and you know who you are), the world is getting smaller and smaller and whether you like it or not, diversity will happen and continue to happen. Oppression and suppression just do not work. Look to other countries that have tried to suppress large portions of their population to create a “ruling class” to see what they created – huge pockets of poverty, drugs, and crime – that eventually flows right into their neighborhood.
    Ugg, I can’t continue. At any rate, the students felt quite comfortable doing what they did and felt (and apparently rightly so) that there would be no repercussions. Our black president is disrespected on a daily basis. Why should a black medical college professor be any different? I guess he’ll be segregating himself in the lunchroom from his colleagues in the school cafeteria. He must feel like he is working in a nest of vipers.

  • This is despicable
    Publish this story, publish the names and locations of each student of this class and publish the names and locations of the professors and the dean and ALL involved so that all people will have this information when choosing medical assistance.
    Even if they do not want medical assistance, these folks should have a huge ugly mark on their credentials and practice.

  • For all those Americans that think that racism is over or even has lessened, need to read this again. Dr. Head’s superiors are at the point that they feel that they don’t need to hide their racism any more so, instead of hiding it behind closed doors; at White only parties or on the golf cources; they plaster it on photoshppped viedeos or open messages as if to say, so; what are you going to do about it? This is the truth about what Blacks face everyday regardless of their position in life. It’s re-inforced by incidents like Trayvon, Martin, Ken Chamberlain and countless other incidences which send the same message: WE DON’T CARE IF YOU LIKE OR NOT; YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. It sets the stage for a race war.

  • Karina Varien

    This is pretty egregious. I believe the doctor made a huge mistake backing down initially in a bid for tenure. Really? I think once you let a racist know that you will tolerate this kind of bigotry in exchange for money (yes money , because prestige ain’t coming) then every shred of respect is permanently lost and it becomes open season. When he took the podium after this ‘roast’, it would have been far more beneficial to him if he had addressed the entire room in the open and educated them about bigotry and why it is never funny or acceptable in any of its forms. It probably would have gained him a lot more respect than quietly shuffling off into the background – in exchange for money and a questionable contract. He did not realize that he was already ‘destroyed’ when the [deleted] supervisor advised him that “making a stink about the roast would destroy him’. The fact is at that point, he had very little to lose -as he realized a little too late.

    • Mavis Dowdie

      Karina, please, please let us not judge this fine doctor! He does not need advice!What he needs at this time is support to get this issue out and blow the covers of these people who still exist, unfortunately they are more than we would like to believe. For God’s sake we need to get rid of the ‘ blame the victim’ mentality. Have you listened to his remarks in the video?

  • I wish I could say I am surprised. One positve is that these people are showing their “true colors” so now Dr. Head knows who he has to watch.

  • I’m not surprised either. It is beyond disgusting. For a nation that is always touting how “CHRISTIAN” it is, WOW what a lie. It goes, however, right back to the election of a Black man as President. It has been the gigantic ELEPHANT in the room that we weren’t suspose to see or acknowlege – racism, alive and well.

  • Alfonso Lopez-Vasquez

    “Seldom does a day go by that I am not reminded that I am just a black man with a hoe on my back.” With apologies to the doctor to whom this quote is attributed – I seem to recall having read it in a publication probably documenting the history of the National Medical Association. Dr. Head’s experience is a reminder that the insidiousness of racism is far from being controlled and much less eliminated.

  • “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”…….and get louder!

  • Phil Seeberg

    “It was UCLA administrators’ “lack of action” that hurt the most”

    Often we hear that people say or do things out of ignorance. Sometimes an appology or swift punishment can wipe away a problem. I can understand how being told not to make a fuss can just pour fuel on the pain/offense.

    We have stories in Chicago of kids not being allowed at graduation because of dress code offenses, and these people (at UCLA) don’t seem to have had anything done to them.

  • Being outraged by this stupid behavior is understandable, but not particularly helpful. Nor will some of the recommendations in this article really change the root causes of this behavior over the long run. I agree that accountability from leadership is absolutely crucial to fighting this bias, but zero tolerance is not the way exercise accountability. Leaders have to take responsibility for being discerning about what behaviors merit the severest reprimands (censure or termination) and what behaviors can better be served by engaging the perpetrators and other stakeholders in learning opportunities. Zero tolerance can be a copout: it allows leaders to abdicate the responsibility for being thoughtful about how they deal with diversity in their organizations.

    In addition, “mandatory training” recommendations should always be accompanied by the qualifier “good.” Mediocre diversity training can be more damaging than no training at all. It can heighten resistance to diversity and can stoke resentment toward the people who are different it was supposed to support. Resource groups are clearly helpful, but only if they are supported unequivocally by leadership. They must wholly be a part of the organization and must be both a resource for its members and a resource for the organization.

  • Shasta Scott, MD

    What a very difficult situation for Dr Head to put in – tenure, pay and possibly his job on the line.

    Why? Because someone didn’t want to “teach” the students right and wrong, and make it a lesson in cultural competence. This missed opportunity will be something that the medical studentsfuture hospitals will now be on the hook to try to teach. What a disconnect – what they were allowed to do in medical school is completely inappropriate for the workplace.

    When you take the foul language, racial (actually all) stereotypes out of “roasts” and comedy, it does require you to actually be funny, and not rely upon these poorly veiled attempts at comedy.

    I really don’t want one of these students operating or interacting with me or my loved ones.

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