Globally known cancer center addresses racism diagnosis

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The oldest center in the world devoted solely to cancer research has installed two Black women among its top ranks after a report found its Black doctors, nurses and staff members faced widespread racism.

The leadership changes at Buffalo, New York’s prestigious, 125-year-old Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center came after a self-commissioned, 43-page report cited feelings of “endemic hostility” toward employees of color that was “significant and pervasive” and a hierarchy kept in place with bullying and microaggressions. A year later, the hospital was further embarrassed by its ties to a real estate firm accused of racist practices.

The prestigious Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, near downtown Buffalo, New York, has voluntarily made public a report detailing racism against Black doctors, nurses and other employees. Photo credit: Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center

The developments marked a sharp turn for an institution that has long enjoyed a good reputation globally. Roswell Park developed the world’s first chemo research program, pioneered the PSA screening test for prostate cancer and created a medication protocol that would become the worldwide standard of care for leukemia. 

The report issued in April of 2022 recommended that Roswell Park hire a diversity officer who functions separately from human resources. To that end, Roswell lured attorney Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney away from her position as Buffalo’s deputy mayor, naming her senior vice president and chief diversity officer. Rodriguez-Dabney had also previously served as chief diversity officer for the city, and for Buffalo State University. 

Changes at the top

After Michael Joseph resigned in May as chairman of the board, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul that same month appointed Black attorney and 5-year board member Leecia Eve to the post. The Buffalo native and Harvard Law grad has worked as an aide to former U.S. Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, both Democrats. Eve also has made unsuccessful bids for both attorney general and lieutenant governor. Eve is the daughter of Arthur Eve, the nationally known civil rights leader and retired state legislator who played a major role in negotiations during the 1971 Attica Prison riot. With Leecia Eve in place at Roswell Park, the board took a second look at the idea of making the report public and the vote was a unanimous yes.

Black News & Views sat down with Eve, Rodriguez-Dabney, and Roswell Park’s (white) president and CEO, Dr. Candace Johnson, who laid out the center’s plans to address the charges of racism.

Rodriguez-Dabney wants it unequivocal; she and Eve are hardly window dressing.

“I would not have come here if I didn’t think I was going to be able to put a team together to actually do the work,” she said.

Rodriguez-Dabney’s first order of business will be to demystify the reporting of potentially racial incidents through clear, uncomplicated channels. She also aims to make herself approachable and available by walking the sprawling campus, talking personally with employees. “I have no illusions, I have my work cut out for me, but trust is the currency of change.”

Rodriguez-Dabney and her colleagues have their work cut out for them because of Roswell’s size and reputation.

The hospital near downtown Buffalo employs nearly 4,000 people and is held in high esteem in the Western New York area as well as throughout the United States, as confirmed by its many appearances on the U.S. News & World Report list of Top Fifty Cancer Hospitals in America. Last month, Roswell Park was recognized in a poll conducted by Forbes magazine as number three on its list of best employers in N.Y. State.

Left to right: Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, senior vice president and chief diversity officer of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, Dr. Candace Johnson, president and CEO, and Leecia Eve, chairwoman of the board. Photo credit: Yves Richard Blanc, Blanc Photographie

However, the veracity of that last distinction depends on the race of the employee you ask. It is no secret that Roswell holds an abysmal reputation among Buffalo’s black community as a place to work. In fact, Roswell has been hit with at least fifteen lawsuits in the past eight years. Public records show Roswell has already shelled out $4.67 million to settle some of them. The accusations come from doctors and custodial staff alike, ranging from microaggressions to conspicuously blatant racist language uncontested in work settings.

Nationally known Black doctor says he faced hostility

Dr. Willie Underwood, a urologic surgeon and chairman-elect of the American Medical Association, was at Roswell Park for over 10 years. He brought suit against the hospital in 2014 alleging he was paid less than white physicians in his department with much less experience. He said he was routinely subjected to racist language and unfounded questions about his suitability for the job. He claimed his supervisor referred to him as a “token black,” and more than once said he was only there because of affirmative action. 

Underwood filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New York State Division of Human Rights. Afterwards, a promotion he’d earned was held up for six months in what seemed like an act of retaliation. The case was settled, and Underwood received a $4 million chunk of that aforementioned outlay.

Another former employee described the racial atmosphere as overwhelming.

“Working there is challenging because it’s almost like you’re trying to survive in this rat race just to keep your job,” said Angela Lockhard, a Black woman who worked at Roswell Park for eight years starting out as a switchboard operator. “You really have to learn how to survive on a different level than I’ve ever experienced before,” she said.

Lockhard characterized Roswell Park’s middle management members as “bullies,” and it seemed HR’s job was just to back them up, she said. When she had an incident of racism to report, she was shuffled through a maze of people.

“I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown because nobody was listening to me,” Lockhard said.

She experienced headaches and debilitating stress, such that her doctor ordered a temporary medical leave. She transferred to a different department, only to experience more of the same.

“If you’re not the compliant type of black person with your head in the sand, they have a system to get rid of you,” Lockhard explained.

She finally quit and went to another employer, even taking a cut in pay. “It was like a breath of fresh air. I was able to just do my job and go home, there wasn’t the extra work of jumping through hoops to make sure I still had a job the next day,” she said.

Roswell Park hires firm to study its racial atmosphere

As the complaints and lawsuits piled up, Roswell Park made a bold decision in 2021. It hired an outside law firm, Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, to take a painstakingly thorough look into their diversity and equity practices, the complaints on record, and conduct live interviews with employees. The report was delivered to Roswell’s Board of Directors in July of 2022, but not divulged beyond hospital walls despite persistent calls from local news media to make the findings public.

Then the proverbial other shoe dropped.

On May 7th, 2023, the Buffalo News broke the story that real estate investment firm Clover Group, based in suburban Buffalo, was being accused of racist business practices by a former executive who was bringing suit against them. Damning audio recordings of company meetings gave heft to this whistleblower’s claims. (Weeks later, a second executive stepped forward with the same claim of racist practices.)

The public learned that the chairman of Roswell Park’s board was none other than Clover Group founder and president Michael Joseph, and had been for the past 16 years. This development made for a public relations nightmare for the hospital, already lacking trust from Buffalo’s Black population.

The report, which can be viewed on Roswell Park’s website by watching the video at the bottom of this page, seemed to put a rubber stamp on what Black employees had been saying about their racial challenges. But the report also acknowledged Roswell Park had made some well-intentioned efforts. 

In 2020, the center brought on a diversity expert to lead workshops, town hall discussions, and focus groups. Employees perceived this, though, as more of a box-checking exercise than anything else. The report also called the hospital’s efforts “largely piecemeal and reactive,” saying the moves did not reflect a posture toward preventing racial incidents, or a commitment to a better work environment overall.

The report also confirmed Angela Lockhard’s account, concluding that the complaint-reporting structure was confusing and redundant to such a degree as to foster mistrust in the process.

Black doctors responding said they felt marginalized, undermined, and underpaid compared to their white colleagues. They said white doctors who complain are taken at their word while they are not.

During Black News & Views’ interview with Board Chair Leecia Eve, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Rodriguez-Dabney, and President and CEO Candace Johnson, the trio outlined how the center is coming to terms with race..

Johnson started at Roswell Park in 2002, becoming CEO in 2015. She viewed the environment through rose-colored glasses, she said, and was naive to the problems highlighted in the report. 

“In big institutions people rarely tell the CEO and if they do, they’re telling you what they want you to hear,” she said.

The only way for the organization to regain credibility with its employees and in the community was with an accounting to itself of “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” She insists there was no nefarious intent in keeping the Cozen O’Connor report in-house. It was always meant as an internal tool for leadership to make forward plans. 

Eve thought it important to release the report “to build up a level of trust both internally and externally,” and move beyond it in the public discourse. Much of the report didn’t surprise her.

“Roswell is no exception to the rule with respect to the work that all organizations have to be done…. [E]very company in the U.S. has a long way to go still,” Eve said.

Medical industry battling ‘racism and insufficient diversity’

Eve’s assertions are backed by a 2022 report from the National Institute of Health that said the industry has diversity in its numbers, but still lacks inclusivity.

“Racism and insufficient diversity in the U.S. health-care workforce can be partly traced to the 1910 Flexner Report [which helped standardize North American medical education], which led to the closure of all but two Black medical schools and a substantial decrease in the number of Black physicians over the years. … Meanwhile, Black female staff are over-represented in the U.S. health-care workforce but are heavily concentrated in low-wage jobs in the long-term care sector and in hospitals as a result of enduring sexism and racism.”

As if echoing the Cozen O’Connor findings, the NIH report goes on to say “minority ethnic staff are less likely to progress to senior and leadership roles and more likely to experience discrimination, bullying, harassment, and victimization in the workplace.”

The experiences of Lucinda Canty Ph.D., one of the authors of “An Overdue Reckoning On Racism In Nursing” and an associate professor of nursing at UMass Amherst, add more logs to this fire. 

“Hospital systems,” said Canty, ”were never designed for Black people, as patients or employees. Segregation of hospitals ended with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.That’s not too long ago. The structures are still in place in the form of leadership, policies, or procedures, all designed so that people of color cannot thrive. When racial issues come to light there is no accountability.” 

Canty and a team of fellow nurses devoted to antiracism in the health care professions are hosting an online discussion series for white nurses on Saturdays in October with titles such as “Developing Our Awareness of Whiteness” and “DEI Is Not Enough.”

A cursory web search will uncover reams of stories of disparate hospital outcomes based on race: pregnant Black women dying at alarmingly higher rates than white women because they’re not believed when they say they’re in pain; documented assumptions among members of the medical community that Black people feel less pain than everyone else; Black football players assumed to have lower cognitive functioning when treated for concussions; people with potentially life-threatening issues being turned away by rude treatment at the front desk. Roswell Park’s story is a country wide story, and further shows why racism, in every corner where it hides, must be addressed.

Share This article on