Racialized violence and health care’s call to action


Over the last few months, we have faced a relentless pandemic and seen humans rising to serve the most critically ill. However, we have also borne witness to the relentless evidence of health and health care disparities during a time in our country’s history in which the discourse around race, nationality, gender, sex, sexual orientation, class, and religion have reached a fever pitch of discord. We have become increasingly frustrated, sad, and exhausted from witnessing the relentless violence marching unfettered across our country for generations.

Within this context, we have borne witness to the hunting and murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man out jogging in his own neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia.

We have borne witness to the murder of George Floyd, an African American man pinned down for several minutes by an officer.

We have borne witness to the false accusation of Christian Cooper, an African American man bird watching in Central Park, with a manipulative, deliberate weaponization of the police to take advantage of his accuser’s privileged position.

We have borne witness to the death of Breonna Taylor, an African American woman and EMT shot in her own bed while sleeping, by officers.

We have borne witness to the death of Nina Pop, an African American transgender woman, stabbed to death in her own home.

As a human race, we are capable of great feats of heroism, kindness, and ingenuity.

As a human race, we are also capable of great feats of violence, oppression, and racism.

Despite our physical and emotional exhaustion, we must respond.  We must recognize our institutional and individual commitment to provide a safe haven for our communities, patients, colleagues, students, faculty, and staff, to recognize that we are not powerless, and to remind ourselves that we are not alone, despite physical distancing policies.

Every single person reading this essay has the capacity and a responsibility to diminish and extinguish everyday acts of harmful bias, of violence, and of oppression. We need to examine ourselves, our communities, and our profession. We need to examine the ways that we each continue to support systems of oppression. We need to examine what we teach our children, what we neglect to teach our children, and how we teach them. We need to remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, “A riot is the language of the unheard” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere …Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Indeed, our medical profession, our medical education system, and health care delivery system, with origins rooted in profound oppression and racism (i.e., African American medical school closures recommended by Abraham Flexner, the repeated and conscious exclusion of African American physicians from the American Medical Association, the practice of patient segregation within hospitals, the research conducted on racial minorities without consent and more) must be radically altered.

We need to take time to say the names, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Christian Cooper, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, and so many others to our family, friends, and colleagues and do the hard work of having respectful and honest conversations about our reactions to their stories. There are countless others whose names we do not know. We need to plan the specific steps that we will take as individuals to do our part in reducing and eliminating the acts of violence, oppression, and racism that we witness in the news and in our daily lives.

There are so many of these acts that we can feel overwhelmed – xenophobia against our Asian American populations, the continued decimation of our Native American populations, the persistent oppression of our Latin American populations, and the debasement of our LGBTQ populations and countless others. There are many amongst us walking with such great pain and sadness that it can feel easier to turn away and distract ourselves from their suffering by engrossing ourselves in our daily activities.

However, the immensity and complexity of these problems also provide us with a plethora of opportunities to make positive change. We work in a very special field. Most of us have chosen this profession with its opportunities to educate, to innovate, to serve, and to lead because of a profound commitment to address injustices.

Please take a moment to pause and reflect, to remember why we are in health care, and to hold dear those who are most profoundly affected. Then, together, let’s take the next step to rise and address what we can through our everyday activities and relationships, through our scholarship and teaching, through our leadership and health care delivery. Some suggestions include donating to civil rights groups and reading on racism and implicit bias in medicine. In all of this, take heed that our colleagues of color are exhausted – do not lay the burden of teaching anti-racism solely at their feet. As Benjamin Franklin, the converted abolitionist, noted, “Justice will not be served until those that are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

Monica Vela, Dionne Blackman, Deborah Burnet, Marshall Chin, Scott Cook, Karen Kim, Edwin McDonald, Doriane Miller, Monica Peek, and Milda Saunders are members, The University of Chicago Department of Medicine Diversity Committee.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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