As a Black woman, city health officer says she’s felt extra burden to justify her expertise

During a short moment at a public meeting this week, a history of racial injustice and some residents’ simmering impatience with tightening coronavirus mandates collided around Dr. Anissa Davis, Long Beach’s health officer.

Davis, who has authority over Long Beach’s coronavirus response, has lived in the city since she was 6 years old. She graduated from Poly High School, attended UCLA, then graduated from Stanford Medical School and worked as a physician until joining the Long Beach Health Department in 2016.

Now, four years later, she’s found herself in the spotlight like never before.

As Long Beach’s health officer, she became one of the faces of the city’s coronavirus response. Most importantly, she is the city leader with the power to set coronavirus rules by signing off on its health orders in a moment where medical officials have been doubted and threatened across the country by people upset about tight COVID-19 rules.

Davis, who is Black and has spoken forcefully about the need for racial justice, is also in that position of power as the city and nation try to reckon with racist legacies in the wake of nationwide protests.

Tuesday, those two things came together in a very public way when questions from a city councilwoman about Davis’ background left her and other prominent Black women feeling a familiar burden.

“Many of us have experienced the need to justify our seat at the table of leadership and decision-making because of our color or our gender,” Davis said in a statement two days later. “I wish I could say this was my first experience.”

During a City Council meeting Tuesday about the pandemic and Long Beach’s response, Councilwoman Suzie Price said she’s received numerous questions from the public—questions she felt were misguided—including ones wondering if Davis was, perhaps, not a medical doctor and didn’t live in Long Beach. Price, a Deputy District Attorney in Orange County, asked Davis to tell the public a little about her story so residents could get to know her.

The exchange was amicable. Davis talked about her credentials and deep roots in the city. Price praised her. (Watch it here at 4:16:45)

“I actually welcomed the opportunity to tell my story,” Davis said in her statement on Thursday. “I didn’t think it was my medical background that was particularly noteworthy—I took my medical expertise as a given, as a basis for my job. I was much more enthusiastic to describe my deep commitment to Long Beach, as a grad of Long Beach Poly and the Long Beach Memorial Family Medicine Residency, accomplishments I’m so proud of. I really love our diverse, vibrant city.”

But Councilman Rex Richardson quickly said there was something deeper to the conversation. Shortly after the exchange, Richardson criticized people for raising questions about Davis’s credentials.

“Some questions are unfair,” he said.

Price responded that her question was meant to correct misconceptions in the public, and the fact that “some people may not have seen [Davis] in the health briefings and may not have known her background and I wanted her to publicly share that.”

Price later said she quickly apologized to Davis behind the scenes, but that didn’t end the public condemnation of what she’d done.

By Wednesday night, a coalition of a dozen prominent local Black women had signed an open letter calling Price’s questioning “unprofessional, disrespectful, and discriminatory.”

“Councilwoman Price’s actions not only perpetuated the negative experience of Black women in the workplace, they wasted the City of Long Beach’s valuable time in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote the group, which included an epidemiologist and statistician, Dr. Joni Ricks-Oddie, and a recent appointee to the city’s Redistricting Commission, Sharon Diggs-Jackson. “If the Councilwoman and her constituents wanted to familiarize themselves with Dr. Davis’s professional background, they could have simply, ‘googled.’”

In response to their letter, Price said in a statement that she intended to showcase Davis’s sterling abilities and background:

“My intent was to have this highlighted to many of my constituents who have reached out concerned whether these health orders are politics over science, I wanted to let them know specifically that our City is in excellent hands under Dr. Davis’s leadership as a medical professional. I wanted to let everyone know that we are going the extra mile to do everything we can to successfully fight this pandemic through the eyes of a medical doctor.

“I apologize that you may have misinterpreted my comments as challenging her qualifications or expertise. Nothing could be further from the truth. My intention was to allow Dr. Davis the opportunity to highlight to folks what we already know—that we are lucky to have her!

“However, I completely understand why some people may have misinterpreted my actions, and for that I am deeply sorry if anyone was offended.”

Thursday morning, hours before she again stepped in front of cameras to explain the city’s plan to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, Davis issued her own statement, thanking those who came to her defense:

“While the intent may not have been to insult, one has to wonder if a person who looked more like Dr. Fauci would have been asked the same question.

“Just because people are wondering about someone’s credentials (Why are they wondering; take a moment to ask yourself that) doesn’t necessarily mean a health official should be asked about their educational background in a public forum. Maybe, instead, the question needs to be asked of those wondering: Why are you asking? What concerns do you have? Maybe they should look up the qualifications to be a health officer. And that must be what she has.

“It’s so encouraging to know that I’m not standing alone, feeling funky that people are questioning my abilities. That there’s so many folks out there calling it like they see it. Thank you.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to clarify Councilman Rex Richardson’s comments.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.