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Book Forum: Social Issues   |    
Race and Excellence: My Dialogue With Chester Pierce
GEORGE BUSH, M.D., M.M.SC.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:985-985. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.6.985
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By Ezra E.H. Griffith. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1998, 183 pp., $24.95.

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To summarize this book as one African American professor of psychiatry recounting the tale of another African American professor of psychiatry would be to do it a grave injustice. But that is what I fear will happen with this book in our society today—a society that often seeks to pigeonhole after cursory examination. Unfortunately, I was initially guilty of doing this very thing.

In fact, my first thought when I received the request to review this work was, Why me? Yes, I’m an African American assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, so there is conceivably a superficial connection with both Dr. Pierce and Dr. Griffith, but, in my mind, that’s where the similarities ended. As a neuroimaging researcher, I saw little overlap in research interests with the two physicians—little that would qualify me to judge what I believed would be social psychiatric research on the evil effects of racism. This left me with the uncomfortable notion that I had been asked to review this book only because of the color of my skin.

Forgive the personal digression, but it is presented here for a purpose. This is exactly what this book is about. It shows, in ways that few other works do, the insidious nature of the effects of racism—how being the target of prejudice involuntarily (correctly or incorrectly) colors the perceptions and decisions of those in the minority. Today we applaud ourselves because we are comfortable with the discussion of racism in the abstract. We can decry bigotry when we see it in its most overt forms—when others are guilty of outrageous hate crimes based on race or religion or sexual preference. Once we begin to examine our own personal beliefs and actions—the subtle, often unconscious manifestations of prejudice—then we become uneasy.

Through an extended dialogue—a detailed biography of Chester Pierce and a more sketchy autobiography—Ezra Griffith perceptively exposes the strengths, foibles, and inconsistencies that combine to make up a complex and utterly fascinating man. At first, I found Dr. Griffith’s injections of his own story intrusive and off-putting. Combining that with the somewhat choppy style of the early chapters made for an initial sense of dissatisfaction. Increasingly, however, through the middle sections and definitely by the end, Ezra Griffith finds his stride and accomplishes what any good biographer sets out to do—he uses the vehicle of another person’s life to teach us important lessons about ourselves. He forces us to examine our own attitudes in a new light. He skillfully uses Chester Pierce’s research on the causes, mechanisms, and impact of prejudice to provide a framework within which to evaluate our thoughts and feelings. The inclusion of anecdotes from his own life serves to illuminate important themes and issues commonly faced (in different ways) by the two men.

In a few instances, Dr. Griffith even manages to surprise Dr. Pierce with insights into his own unconscious motivations. For example, by prodding Dr. Pierce to expand on his lifelong pattern of refusing to negotiate for higher monetary compensation (and simultaneously drawing out Dr. Pierce’s thinly veiled regret at not having provided more than a life of "genteel poverty" for his wife, Patsy) we are shown how each person must define success for himself. Chester Pierce appears content with most of his choices, and we are enlightened in our own lives by understanding the relevant issues.

This is not a book just for African American psychiatrists. It is a book for all people who seek to understand the ways in which they view and interact with the world. It teaches us, by two remarkable examples, how to examine our own perceptions and values in such a way as to make us wiser and better human beings, despite any superficial differences. It takes us a step closer to living the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, in which people "will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Anything that accomplishes that can only be a good thing.

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