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ADA Apologizes For Tolerating Discrimination In '60s

In a historic move, the American Dental Association has apologized for not taking a stand against discriminatory membership practices.

Raymond Gist is the first African-American president of the American Dental Association.

Raymond Gist is the first African-American president of the American Dental Association. Courtesy of the ADA hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the ADA

In an open letter, Dr. Raymond Gist, who became the ADA's first African-American president in October, said the dentist group should have done a better job in making sure minorities could join affiliated state and local organizations before the mid-1960s.

"[I]n looking forward, we must also look back," Gist wrote. "Along with acknowledging past mistakes and to build a stronger, collaborative platform for future accomplishments, the ADA apologizes to dentists for not strongly enforcing non-discriminatory membership practices prior to 1965."

Michael Battle — the immediate past president of the National Dental Association, which represents more than 6,000 black dentists — says the apology gives NDA members who had been discriminated against in the past some feeling of release, and it helps both organizations move forward.

"We feel it's a great step in the right direction," he says.

Why now, though? We asked Fred Peterson, an ADA spokesman, who told Shots in an e-mail that the dental organization made the apology after organization leaders took part in a summit on diversity in dentistry that the ADA held with the NDA; the Hispanic Dental Association; and the Society of American Indian Dentists.

Even though the ADA's bylaws didn't contain exclusionary language, Peterson said that some state and local dental societies affiliated with the ADA did engage in discriminatory membership practices.

And while Peterson didn't have information about how many people were denied membership, "since the beginning of the ADA in 1859 and continuing through the Civil Rights Era, the ADA's membership reflected the racial segregation that existed in much of the country at the time," Peterson wrote.

A year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the ADA's governing body began requiring affiliated state and local dental societies eliminate discriminatory membership practices.

Peterson says no data available show whether there was a surge of minority member applications after 1965. But he says of the 185,000 practicing dentists in the U.S. in 2009, about 3 1/2 percent are African American and about 44 percent of those dentists belong to the ADA.

Also, about 4 percent of dentists are Hispanic, and 48 percent of them are ADA members. Less than 1 percent are American Indian, and 70 percent of them are members; and 9 percent are Asian American, and 60 percent of them are members.

Two years ago, the American Medical Association issued a similar apology. Dr. Ronald Davis, the immediate past president of the AMA at the time, said that the apology followed an AMA study about the history of medicine's racial divide.

"We knew that there had been problems in the past and after all of the detail was collected, we felt horrible about what had been uncovered, even more so than the anecdotal stories that we had heard previously," Davis told NPR's Michel Martin. "And we felt that we wanted to issue a very public, very official apology on behalf of the entire organization to African-American physicians and the organizations that represent them."

Peterson says that the ADA has established programs to promote diversity, including the Institute for Diversity in Leadership, which aims to help equip minority dentists for leadership roles.

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