Brenda Chaney is a nursing assistant who works at an Indiana nursing home. One of the patients fell on the floor and Chaney went to help her. It turned out that Chaney was not allowed to help the woman up, primarily because she'd left instructions stating that only white aid workers should be able to work with her.
Chaney took the matter to court, and the court ruled that her civil rights had been violated by allowing these kinds of restrictions to exist within the health care system.
This set of peculiar rules were driven by a movement toward patients' rights that began two decades ago. During this period, patients were given more options in choosing the manner by which they are provided care, including being allowed to choose who takes care of them. Unfortunately, lawmakers never considered that some might restrict care on the basis of race.
"When people write laws, they don't think about these types of things very much," said Dennis Frick, an attorney with Indiana Legal Services' Senior Law Project, told the Associated Press.
According to Steve Maag, director of Assisted Living and Continuing Care at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, the issue of race and patient rights comes up all over the United States. This divergence is part of what seems to be a perpetual contradiction between American liberties and racial/gender equality.
When I hear about this story, I am reminded of the words of Rand Paul, Tea Party leader and Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Paul is a Libertarian, a party that professes to have a fundamental belief in an American's right to choose how they live and what they do.
Their platform is more complicated than what I describe here, but Libertarians effectively oppose government intervention in almost any form. Paul even suggested reconsidering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, primarily because he feels it's a business owner's right to choose who they allow in to their establishment.
While it might seem outlandish that Paul would oppose the Civil Rights Act (well, portions of it), I don't believe that such opposition is driven uniquely by racial animus. Instead, it appears to be driven by a neglect of the importance of equality in our society, in exchange for the pursuit of unadulterated individual freedom.
Such beliefs held by Rand Paul, as well as those who feel a patient can exclude black care providers, come from those who seem to feel that America has a right to be the same country it was before people of color were given respect.
So, while there are some who might oppose the restrictions of patients' rights by disallowing them to discriminate based on race, we must realize that this is the nation we've created: By focusing so deeply on racial inequality for the past 400 years, we are now forced to endure a situation where some liberties must be restricted in order for us to rebalance the nation that has been undermined by racism. The idea of everyone doing what they want is not good for our country, especially if we want to restore some semblance of racial tolerance.
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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.