Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy, M.D.

Book–Dr. Tweedy, currently an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University, shares his experiences in this roughly chronological memoir that explores his identity as a black man and how it intersects with his identity as a doctor. He explores his discomfort with the fact that, for so many illnesses, simply being black is a major risk factor, and he is one of only a handful of black students in his medical program. He observes half-seriously that “being black can be bad for your health.” To me, the most interesting parts of the book are in the middle, where he tells various anecdotes about his patients’ reactions to him as a doctor during his residency and observes the inequalities in care received by the rich and the poor, who are disproportionately black. During his education, Tweedy briefly serves as a doctor at a pop-up clinic in a poor, rural area, prescribing whatever medicines his patients can afford and doing his best to make notes for whichever doctor will see them next time. He contrasts this type of patient-doctor relationship to that of his more affluent patients with health insurance, who are able to see the same primary care doctor each visit and receive drugs based on efficacy rather than affordability.

Tweedy makes for an engaging and thoughtful narrator. His account is modest and he remains cognizant of his own biases, having grown up in a middle class household shielded from the disadvantages suffered by many of his patients. If you enjoy Black Man in a White Coat, try Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, another examination of what it means to be a black man in America.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

920x920Book–Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond immersed himself in the lives of 8 poverty-stricken Milwaukee families and constructed this book out of hours of recorded conversations. His account takes place in both a mostly white run-down trailer park and in a mostly black set of tenements; he also spoke to the two landlords that own these properties. Desmond argues that there is one common thread that destabilizes the lives of all the people he spoke to: eviction. The old well-known advice says that one should spend no more than 1/3 of one’s income on housing. However, when subsisting on government benefits and food stamps, one has no choice but to drop 80%+ of one’s meager income on housing, and, as Desmond puts it, “if you’re spending 80 percent of your income on rent, eviction is much more of an inevitability than an irresponsibility.”

For the most part, this book is a litany of sad stories, depressing outcomes, poor choices, and petty injustices. I found it to be somewhat repetitive after a while. However, the repetitiveness proves Desmond’s point. Even when these families get a lucky break, be a it a tax refund, benefits coming through, or a win at gambling, the precariousness of their situation and their predatory landlords keep them locked in a cycle of poverty where they owe their landlord more than they can pay, until they are evicted and need to start their Sisyphean journey toward stability in a new, often more squalid, place. If Evicted caught your attention, I would also recommend White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich