Black Doc Sues UCLA, Cites Racist Treatment

A lawyer for the doctor at the center of the "gorilla slide" viral video spoke with The Root.


(The Root) -- It's no surprise that Dr. Christian Head's account of being depicted as a gorilla sodomized by his white supervisor in a slideshow shown at a UCLA School of Medicine graduation "roast" has been the subject of national attention and outrage.

The African-American head-and-neck surgeon's tale of over-the-top racism by the university went viral, thanks to a YouTube video chronicling the allegations and a petition calling on the UCLA Board of Regents to "end the racial discrimination and deplorable mistreatment" against Head.

But the worst part of the "gorilla slide," as it's described in an April 17 discrimination action filed on Head's behalf against his supervisors and the Regents, is that, according to the 49-year-old doctor, it was merely one moment in a pattern of discrimination, harassment and humiliation by the UCLA School of Medicine that he says has lasted for years.

And according to the April 17 complaint, the physician, who was once named "Most Innovative Surgeon" by Black Enterprise and who launched UCLA's Johnson Cancer Center Tumor lab, faced retaliation by the institution when he asked for the wrongs against him to be righted.

As the only African-American tenured professor at UCLA's department of head and neck surgery, Head says it all started when his supervisor, Marilene Wang, labeled him an "affirmative action hire" and "affirmative action project" and proclaimed that black doctors like him were the reason for failed hospitals. Things got worse, according to the complaint, when he cooperated with an investigation against Wang. He says the retaliation escalated until, at a 2006 event for graduating students, it became public. Head tells his version of the events in the video (shown above) created by NAACP executive Willis Edwards to spread the word about the case, saying:

[A] series of 20 slides, describing me as a poor doctor ... then the final slide was a photo of a gorilla on all fours with my head photoshopped onto the gorilla, with a smile on my face, and a Caucasian man, completely naked, sodimizing me from behind, and my boss' head photoshopped on the person, smiling. I could feel the pressure in my chest, listening to them laugh. I waited until the laughter subsided, and then I approached the podium, and I pulled my boss aside, Dr. Gerald Berke, and I said to him, "How could you let this happen? How could you do this?" And he just smiled and chuckled, you know ... "What's the problem?"

Head says the school ignored his requests to address the incident and convinced him that pushing to have his allegations of racism addressed would put his career on the line.

Heeding that warning, he let the issue go until after he was tenured, but when he did readdress it, he reports that things only got worse: His complaint details receiving paychecks for amounts less than a dollar, teaching opportunities denied, deliberate attempts to sabotage his medical career, plus discrimination, harassment and retaliation that all continue, he and his attorneys claim, to this day.   

The Root reached out to the UCLA Head and Neck Clinic, where defendants Gerald Berke and Marilene Wang work alongside Head as physicians specializing in otolaryngology, as well as the university's media-relations office and chancellor's office. All offices contacted declined to comment beyond the university's official statement on the case, condemning the behavior described in the complaint but saying, "UCLA has formal grievance and disciplinary procedures that afford appropriate due process review of any complaints of discrimination or mistreatment. Dr. Christian Head and his attorney were repeatedly advised of these procedures and encouraged to utilize them. They chose not to do so." (Read the full statement here.) To that, Head's attorney Shannon Foley responds that the university's procedures "proved not to be trustworthy."