A physician awakens to racism in America

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Until recently, I didn’t really understand the meaning behind the Black Lives Matter movement.  I was one of those people who felt, “of course black lives matter, all lives matter.”  I mean, that’s exactly why I became a doctor in the first place.  To help people. All people.  I would venture to say that with my rose-colored glasses and white privilege (that I didn’t know I had), I was even offended that color was an issue at all. I knew that instances of police brutality were terrible and should not be tolerated, but I did not believe it had to do with race, nor did I think it was a systemic issue.  I saw police brutality as abuse of power by a few bad apples.  The victims just happened to be black most of the time.  In addition, I agreed that Blue Lives Matter too.  I kept thinking of all the wonderful police officers who would never behave that way.  These are people who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe.  These are people who became officers for just the same reason I became a doctor, to help people.

And then one day last year, my college-aged daughter gave me the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and said, “You have to read this.”  After finishing, I was dumbstruck.  The book really shows how unfair the criminal justice system is to black people and especially poor black people.   That was the beginning of my self-education around racism in America. Over the last six to nine months, my daughter continued to share documentaries, articles, books, and podcasts with me.  One that was particularly enlightening was the Netflix documentary, Thirteenth, which chronicles policy changes since the abolition of slavery and their impact on the black community.

After all this reading and learning, I still didn’t fully get it.  I actually went to a Black Lives Matter protest recently, and when I made a comment to my daughter that not all police are bad, her initial reaction was to shush me before the crowd heard me (which was ironic because I went to the protest to make sure she was safe and in fact, I was the one stirring the pot, and she was keeping me safe), and then she explained, “It’s not the individuals, it’s the institution. You just need to be educated.”  I was a little offended that my daughter was trying to educate me, but she was very respectful, and so I told her I needed to learn more.  The protest was both peaceful and inspiring, and afterward, I went home and read more.

After all the self-educating and attending the protest, my eyes are finally opening to the issue of racism in the criminal justice system (and beyond).  I used to think that most of the terrible things that happen to black people are related to poverty, and while poverty is a huge issue, I now see that being black is an independent risk factor and that systemic change is needed to fix it.

I still believe that all lives matter, but now I understand that statement is a naïve and simplistic narrative.   I was looking at the world from where I was standing, a place, a privilege.  The playing field is so uneven that we need to help black lives just to get to the starting line that the rest of us take for granted.    I finally see the problem, which is a necessary first step before trying to find a solution.   As a physician, I cannot begin to understand the complexities of the criminal justice system, nor can I be sure of the best way to fix it.  What I do know is that the system needs reform and that vilifying every police officer is not the right approach.

As policies seem to be shifting in this wave of change, I’m optimistic about one potential outcome in my field.  In the medical world, we see health disparities related to race every day.  The black community and all people of color are faced with a disproportionate number of stressors related to poverty. If we support these communities and improve education, decrease food and housing insecurity and improve employment rates, we will also improve health.  It is not widely understood that psychosocial stressors can cause physical illness.   Dealing with food insecurity, housing concerns, violence, and unemployment have been proven to cause physiologic changes that weaken our immune systems and even change our DNA. These changes lead to chronic medical problems, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer.  Investing in programs that will improve these social determinants of health could have a massive impact on the health of people in these communities.

I am left feeling unsettled.  In my efforts to not see color, I have missed a major injustice that has been going on around me all my life.  What else is going on around me that I am completely unaware of, and what can I do to help?

Jennifer Shaer is a pediatrician. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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