August 25, 2021

Kaiser Permanente’s history of nondiscrimination

Our principles of diversity and our inclusive care began during World War II when our racially integrated hospitals delivered care to all Kaiser shipyard workers.

Lobby at Richmond Field Hospital, circa 1943

One of Kaiser Permanente’s key features is that we are an integrated health care organization — meaning we seamlessly provide care and coverage together with a wide range of services under one roof, whether in a Kaiser Permanente medical office or hospital, or at a contracted facility. But in 1945, when the health plan was opened to the public, the word ‘integrated’ also held another important meaning. It reflected a deep commitment to being one of the first health care providers in the United States to have racially integrated hospitals and waiting rooms, as well as an ethnically diverse workforce, including physicians and allied health professionals.

During World War II, compliance with federal laws, such as President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, and adherence to best practices meant that employees were treated without discrimination. An estimated 20,000 African Americans, along with many Chinese Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, worked in the Kaiser shipyards. Kaiser Industries took great pride in this ethnic and racial diversity, featuring stories in the shipyard newsletters. A caption for a photo of an elegantly attired African American female shipyard worker launching the Liberty Ship S. Hall Young boasted: “How’s this, Adolf? It’s Richmond’s answer to your efforts to split America into warring racial groups.”

Industrial health care covered all workers, and the affordable supplemental health plan that Sidney R. Garfield, MD, created for workers and their families in the Kaiser shipyards was open to all equally. In a time when the civil rights movement was just coalescing, racism and segregation in America was pervasive. Access to health care was no exception, yet the Permanente Foundation Hospitals took the high road.

A San Francisco News article on October 7, 1943, described the Permanente Health Plan. Journalist Nick Borne noted, “Illness knows no color lines here. Red-helmeted men, women welders, [and Black workers] lined up for a checkup by the busy young doctors.” Continuing, Borne’s article made note of a Black female patient in an integrated room with a white female shipyard loan office employee.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union newspaper, The Dispatcher, favorably remarked in 1945 that, “The hospital’s facilities are open to all groups with no segregation of patients because of creed or color.”

Nurse attending shipyard worker, Oakland hospital, circa 1943

Nurse attending shipyard worker, Oakland hospital, circa 1943

In 1946, the year after the health plan was opened to the public, several local police officers visited the Oakland hospital with an eye to join. Permanente medical economist Avram Yedidia recalled the event:

“ ... The police chief said to me, ‘You know, when we walked through, I saw that you had some [Blacks and whites] in the same room. I don’t think we like that.’ As I can recall, I responded, ‘Do you know this plan started that way, with blacks and whites in the shipyards?, and that’s the way it goes. They worked together, and they were sick together.’ I told the police chief: ‘Those who don’t like it shouldn’t join the plan.’”

Diversity and inclusion continue to be guiding principles at Kaiser Permanente. Our workforce reflects high percentages of women, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, and we have a diverse board of directors. The organization is part of the DiversityInc Hall of Fame, recognized as a corporation leading the movement for diversity and inclusion practices in the business world. And Kaiser Permanente's commitment to nondiscrimination has moved well beyond race and ethnicity, to include gender, generation, sexual orientation, physical and cognitive abilities, religion, and more in the pursuit of equality without exception.