Commitment to combating endemic racism

Posted June 9, 2020, then-Division Head Dr. Keith Elkon describes the ways in which we are working to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in our Division and affirms our commitment to anti-racism.

This is unpublished

As the pandemic recedes from the USA, we are now faced with tragic events that reflect endemic racism in parts of our society.

On June 3rd, our UW Health Sciences leaders talked about what the university is doing to improve racial diversity within UW faculty, students and trainees as well as efforts to train staff against bias. On June 4th, university leadership sent out a pledge against racism.

This Division of Rheumatology fully endorses this pledge for UW to become a truly anti-racist organization.

It may be helpful to look at this situation within the workplace and university community and also as individuals.

Where we stand in the Division of Rheumatology:

With regard to increasing diversity amongst faculty, we have a long way to go but we have made some progress in training future rheumatologists. 

  • We have made considerable efforts to recruit and train URM (underrepresented minority) fellows – over the last 5-10 years ~ 14% of our fellows are URM.
  • In order to do better, we appointed a joint adult and pediatric rheumatology T32 diversity enhancement committee (Drs. Bach, Bays, Hayward and Coker). They will assess the magnitude of the problem and look for solutions.
  • We partnered with two principal leaders on diversity, Drs.  Bessie Young and Leslie Walker-Harding of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (CEDI) Program at UW to provide guidance.

In addition, recognizing that bias is often subliminal, we have two key plans, which I described to the NIH in support of our T32 fellowship training program, as follows:

  • We understand the unconscious bias that may exist in all faculty who come from relatively homogeneous backgrounds. To counter this, we are requiring all faculty who are involved in recruiting GME and T32 trainees (as well as new faculty members) to take training to counter this bias: This training module emphasizes the benefits of diversity in terms of group creativity (rather than ‘groupthink’) and shows that, in some studies, unconscious bias may favor white candidates by as much as 10:1 - even when underrepresented minority candidates had equivalent credentials.  
  • Rheumatology is participating in the Bias Reduction In Internal Medicine (BRIM) study, which is a nation-wide study in large departments of Medicine that will participate in a bias reduction workshop, which has been shown to increase gender and URM diversity recruitment in academic departments.

At the individual level, I was raised in a country steeped in racism, a major reason for my emigration from South Africa. When the all too familiar racist screeds surfaced in 2016 in the USA, I wrote about my personal experiences publicly in the Seattle Times.

I think that this is a critical time to express abhorrence at the brutality and inhumanity exerted by many in powerful positions against the black community. I encourage all of you to keep a dialogue open to consider what we can do to build an equitable community within our workspace and beyond.


Keith Elkon, MD

Head, Division of Rheumatology