The tragic life and death of a poster boy

He was held up as the poster boy of racial preferences in the fight against California’s Proposition 209, the ballot initiative outlawing preferences passed overwhelmingly in 1996. An ardent defender of preferences, in 1995 he was profiled as their best defense in the pages of The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, in defending racial preferences before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in April of 1996, even hailed him as “the perfect example” of their goodness, because “the supposedly less qualified African-American student [is now] a successful ob-gyn in central Los Angeles [actually it was Compton, a nearby suburb], serving a disadvantaged community and making a difference in the lives of scores of poor families.

Now he is dead, shot during a carjacking in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. His name is Patrick Chavis, and he was one of a few students admitted to the University of California at Davis Medical School under an “affirmative-action” program in 1973, the same year Allan Bakke, who had significantly higher entrance credentials, was rejected. As a well-known defender of racial preferences, Chavis was often referred to in media accounts as the very student who took Bakke’s place, Bakke’s name having become well known because the suit he brought against the university resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1978, laying the foundation for the diversity justification for racial preferences in admissions.

Mere months before his death, however, Chavis had become a different kind of poster boy — that of media bias. Former Newsweek reporter William McGowan’s new book, Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism, opened with a discussion of Chavis’ “beatification” in the Times and other media, because of their complete failure to report the rest of the Chavis story — revelations of Chavis’ professional incompetence and fatal misconduct.

In 1997 Chavis had his license suspended by the Medical Board of California, who spoke harshly of his “inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician.” As McGowan later wrote, the board condemned Chavis’ “poor impulse control and sensitivity to patients’ pain.” A doctor who had worked with Chavis had given the board’s investigators “a tape recording of patients screaming horrifically, with Chavis responding, ‘Don’t talk to the doctor while he’s working,’ and ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire.’”

Chavis was also found guilty of gross neglect and incompetence in his treatment of three liposuction patients, two who somehow escaped bleeding to death (one had lost 70 percent of her blood) and one who wasn’t as fortunate. Tammaria Cotton, the woman who died, complained during her liposuction of sudden difficulty in breathing, to which Chavis responded, “If you can talk, you can breathe.” Chavis did not stay to administer emergency medical treatment to any of the three. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby discovered that Chavis’ sole training in liposuction had been “a four-day course at the Liposuction Institute of Beverly Hills — only half of which he completed.”

McGowan chose these events as the lead example in his media-bias book because “after having set [Chavis] up as such a model for ‘diversity’ in university admissions, news organizations should have at least felt an obligation to report the sequel to the story.” They didn’t. Instead, they willful omitted a “riveting, nationally newsworthy story central to the country’s discussion of racial preferences.”

Chavis’ life came to a tragic end on the night of July 23. The issues that enveloped his life, wittingly or not, however, are still burning public-policy issues. They deserve more responsible debate than the sanctification of the One Good Example. As we’ve seen, that tactic can be disastrous; more practically, however, it unnecessarily clouds the debate with too much emotion.