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By becoming orthopedic chief at Harvard, White admitted, he could have lost touch with his past while walking in circles of the wealthy and Harvard-connected. But White, who now lives in Weston, Mass., said he couldn’t forget those in Memphis and mentors who helped him, even at a time when helping an African-American was dangerous.

That has pushed him to his new mission: fighting health care disparities that exist among blacks, Latinos and gays four decades after the Civil Rights Movement. For example, White said evidence shows that blacks receive less pain medication for the same injuries as whites and Latinos received less angioplasty and bypass surgery for heart disease than whites.

His solution is stressing “culturally competent care” _ a commitment by medical professionals to be responsive to different values, language barriers and attitudes of patients that could influence how health care is received.

It’s not a new idea, White said, but it’s rarely elevated in debates over health care reforms.

“He’s dead-on in terms of the bias we have and don’t even acknowledge,” Feagin said. “That includes not just bias in terms of race but also those who are obese.”

White said teaching the public about culturally competent care will remain a mission for the rest of his life. “If I can do anything in my power to make people aware of this bias that affects all of us,” said White, “then I think I’ve completed my mission.”

(This version CORRECTS school name to Mount Hermon School for Boys, not St. Hermon School for the Boys.)