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Doctor Becomes Symbol in Affirmative Action Debate

Health: Policy's backers cited South-Central physician's successes. Now license suspension gives critics ammunition.

September 02, 1997|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Patrick Chavis, to his admirers, was not just a successful black doctor: He was a symbol of what was right and just about affirmative action.

Admitted to UC Davis Medical School in 1973 under a special minority program later successfully challenged by white applicant Allan Bakke, Chavis made it his mission to return to the area where he grew up, making his home in Compton and his obstetrical practice in Lynwood.

"I went to medical school with the intent of coming back to South-Central," said Chavis, 45. "I could have gotten a home in Palos Verdes, but these are the people I choose to live and work with. They are like my mother and my father."

In glowing media profiles, he came across as a dedicated urban soldier, and affirmative action proponents--including U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and state Sen. Tom Hayden--publicly embraced his example.

Just two weeks ago, Eva Patterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights touted Chavis' achievements as a physician over those of Bakke, a Minnesota anesthesiologist. Her implication: Affirmative action had favored the best man.

It turned out to be an unfortunate example. Late this spring, the Medical Board of California accused Chavis of seriously injuring two patients and stashing them at different times in his home, and of abandoning a third woman, groggy from surgery, in his office. Hours later, that patient, Tammaria Cotton, 43, died at a Lynwood hospital. The board suspended his license to practice pending a hearing that may end his career.

In the past several weeks, as the debate simmered over implementation of California's anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, some conservatives adopted Chavis as a symbol of their own--representing the policy's dangers. "Give me preferences and give me death," read the newsletter of one conservative think tank, Pacific Research Institute. "Affirmative Action Can Be Fatal," declared the headline over Jeff Jacoby's column in the Boston Globe.

Yet the case also has signaled, to some on both sides of the debate over affirmative action, the perils of making issues out of individuals.

"I don't think the argument rises or falls on one--or on a handful--of examples," said Richard Yarborough, director of the Center for African American studies at UCLA. "That is the basis of stereotyping of all kinds, when you take one case and try to explode it into a general rule."

"There is certainly a problem in using single cases," said Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a public policy research organization in Washington. But she contends that affirmative action proponents "can't have it both ways."

"They want to say that [Chavis] should be held up as all that's good and wholesome about affirmative action when it looks like he's doing well, but when he fails, they don't take responsibility for that."

Chavis is not helping to quell the controversy. Even now, he is the first to say his race is relevant. He says he's still a good example of the promise of affirmative action, but also is a victim of racist backlash against outspoken minorities.

"They want to hang me," he said, referring to "an unholy alliance" among his critics. "It's a lynching."

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In his first extensive interview since the suspension, Chavis described the challenges of his youth, living with four siblings on welfare and on what his mother could earn as a beautician. He spoke of the benefits he brought back to South-Central as a doctor.

"I don't mean to boast, but I'm somewhat of a hero in the community," he said.

With the same vigor he showed in media interviews years ago, defending the 16-slot affirmative action program at UC Davis Medical School, he defended his performance as a physician over the years. He denied any wrongdoing.

In a rapid-fire speech that ricocheted from one topic to the next, he blamed his downfall on the hospital where his patients were treated, a patient's attorney, the Medical Board of California, the state attorney general's office and a television station. For the first time, he even accused Cotton's husband of "interference" in his wife's care--by lifting her into a wheelchair after surgery--saying he should be accused of "second-degree murder, if not first-degree murder."

Jimmy Cotton could not be reached for comment, but in the past has said he went from being frantic to stunned as his wife bled to death after being abandoned by Chavis. The doctor was accused by the Medical Board of gross negligence in her June 1996 death.

Besides alleging racism by white hospital administrators, Chavis contends he is the victim of St. Francis Medical Center's jealousy of his popularity with patients, the hospital's aversion to his performing abortions and the hospital's fear of being sued for its own alleged medical mistakes in the care of Chavis' patients.

But racism--including an alleged backlash for his vocal support of minority employees at St. Francis--is the main charge. "They don't do this to white people," he said.

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