My mother has a tattoo. Really. She does.
There is a small blue crucifix on the inner aspect of her right wrist. Let me pause here to point out a few things. First of all, my mother is not a “tattoo” person. Secondly, the inner aspect of the wrist is one of the most sensitive areas of the human body. Third, my mom doesn’t like needles. All that to say, if my 75-year-old, 100-pound mom got a tattoo on the inside of her wrist, it means a lot.
The cross is a symbol of her Christian faith. In 1969, she and my father emigrated from Egypt to escape the brutal persecution of Coptic Christians. Sadly, when they arrived in the “Promised Land” (Jersey City, NJ), they quickly learned that by immigrating to the U.S. they had effectively lept from the pot of religious oppression directly into the fire of ethnic marginalization.
Growing up as a “brown” girl in a virtually all-white school was not easy. I hid my Egyptian smashed fava bean sandwiches, avoided having friends over, and prayed daily for my hair to become straight. As proud as my mom was of her cross, I was embarrassed by all the things that came with it.
I was mortified at my father’s inability to use the “p” and “th” sounds appropriately. I cringed every November 6 morning at his enthusiastic “HABBY BIRTHESDAY.” I always thought our house smelled like onions and was mad that I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers.
I felt like I was constantly tripping over my Egyptian-ness.
But I never, not once, felt like my life was in danger.
The death of a black man at the knee of a white police officer is not a matter I ever expected to discuss in a letter to my patients, and I know I will lose some of you as a result. I am sure there is a way for me to express my opinion by softening the edges of a story about a “bad cop” and an “unfortunate incident.” But today, as George Floyd’s family mourns, I am thinking about my parents and the sacrifices they made to raise us in this great country, and I cannot “see both sides.”
Black people are more likely to die of cancer, hypertension, and CoVID-19. African American women are three and a half times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes. African American children are ten times more likely to die of gun violence. African Americans are also two and a half times more likely to die in police custody. This is not a matter of a “bad cop.” It is a matter of a nation that still allows white supremacy to bubble aggressively just beneath the surface of our proudly proclaimed diversity. It is a matter of absent decisive disciplinary action against police brutality. It is a matter of racial inequity that continues to permeate all aspects of American life from equal pay to homeownership to health care outcomes.
I am a doctor. I took physiology. I know that we all “bleed red,” and I do believe that “all lives matter.” But to say these things in the face of the brutal murder of George Floyd is appalling.
I am privileged. But I am privileged because of the sacrifices my minority parents made. As doctors, we see first-hand the havoc that racial inequality causes: higher amputation rates in diabetics, lower survival rates in stroke, and more frequent emergency room visits for asthma. As doctors, we work towards achieving health equity every day. To do so authentically, we as doctors, must also continually, loudly, and boldly show our support for the victims of racial injustice while condemning its perpetrators.
To hold up that “most police officers are good” belittles the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, David McAtee, and Manuel Ellis and thousands of others named and unnamed who have been killed as a result of racial injustice.
My intention is not to vilify law enforcement officers. I believe that most are true civil servants shouldering the burden of protecting our public with integrity, kindness, and respect for all. However, the pattern of inaction against those officers that are not, is unacceptable. Rather than lift up the vast majority of dedicated officers, complacency in the face of these tragedies serves to further bury the despicable actions of those like Derek Chauvin.
In my practice, we will continue to provide the highest quality care to every single patient, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious belief, or sexual orientation. We will continue to stand for racial justice, health equity, and against the use of ungoverned police force.
We believe in due process for all regardless of criminal record, character, guilt or innocence.
We will continue to advocate for equal access to services — not the least of which is high-quality health care — for all minority, marginalized, or otherwise disadvantaged populations, and work toward a day when the heavy numbers of sick and dying aren’t disproportionately borne by one race or another.
We often enjoy bantering conversations with our patients. We agree to “respectfully disagree” on matters like baseball: Phillies vs. Mets (Mets, obviously), cheesesteaks: wit or without (wit, obviously), and the bourbon libation of choice: Manhattan vs. Old Fashioned (Old Fashioned, obviously).
However, when it comes to opinions that seem to condone racial inequality, the use of racial slurs, or assumptions made based on race, we have a zero-debate, zero-tolerance policy.
We cannot possibly contribute to changing a culture outside of our doors without first shoring up the culture within.
We are professionals tasked with using our careers to better the quality of life of all. We are not trying to be conservative or liberal. We are not Republicans or Democrats.
We are human.
Christine Meyer is an internal medicine physician.
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