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Racism is a public health crisis, far greater than the crisis we’ve witnessed from COVID-19.
Referencing the legacy of slavery, Dean Michelle Williams of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health stated, “One need only examine the disparities in health care, pollution exposure, and access to green spaces, nutritious food, and educational opportunities that have long harmed health—and prematurely ended lives—in marginalized communities. While the COVID-19 pandemic has newly laid these inequities bare for all Americans to see, the underlying injustices have endured for generations. And all of us have a responsibility to acknowledge and address them.”
I watched footage of the Rodney King beating and LA Riots in a school assembly on race at my nearly all-white high school in Vermont in 1992. I was a member of the almost entirely white Diversity Club. I raised my hand when we were asked if anyone was prejudiced because we all are and I was proud that I was so enlightened as to acknowledge it. And then I sat at the dinner table with my parents asking why Affirmative Action needed to be a thing and why it was ok for schools to prioritize someone else over me because of their race rather than merit. My dad actually yelled at me. I won’t share what he said. That moment now makes me cringe, but it was truly the beginning of an education. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and embarrassing to recognize one’s lack of understanding. But there is only shame in willful ignorance. We see what is before us, laid bare, and we can choose to educate ourselves or turn away.
Many years ago, I left a Boston courtroom, relieved to avoid being impaneled on the jury. The man behind me turned to another potential juror and said, “Well, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t pick me. I took one look at him and knew he was guilty.” He was speaking of the young black man charged with assault. I wince even now, just thinking of it. Prejudice is a learned instinct. We take all sources of information – from what we see on the news, in books, in TV shows or the movies, personal experiences, conversations with trusted individuals – and we use them to identify threats. Problems arise when we fill holes in our knowledge with narrative and when our sources have bias. It is up to the rational brain to counteract that instinct. It’s work and sometimes we mess up, but we should always hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Eight months ago, I lost a close friend – an amazing black, single mom. I don’t even know the words to describe her awesomeness. She was a funny, smart, no-BS sort of woman, who worried about being written off as an “angry black woman”. She spent so much time teaching her daughter what it meant to be a black woman in America and how to empower herself. Cancer took her, but the legacy of slavery was right there too. It robbed her of the chance for the cure afforded to her white counterparts. It robbed the world of her light.
Systemic racism is not just about police brutality. It’s not just about the criminal justice system. It’s about society. It’s about economic opportunity. It’s about health care. It’s about human dignity. It’s about our collective Constitutional rights. We all have a role to play. Sarah Grimke noted abolitionist and mother of the women’s suffrage movement, once said, “All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks…”
Black lives DO matter. Peace on the left. Justice on the right.
Former member and Chair of the Reading Board of Health