I was recently reading a Time magazine article, which included previously unreported coverage of Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, who succumbed to cancer last week. When asked why he continued to tell his story, he responded:
…it affects me — and sometimes it brings me to tears. But I think it’s important to tell it. Maybe it will help educate or inspire other people so they too can do something, they too can make a contribution.
As history tells us, Congressman Lewis, then a 25-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and coordinator of “Freedom Rides,” helped lead a march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama towards the state capital of Montgomery over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The protestors were met with force by the state and local police. Mr. Lewis’ skull was fractured by the strike of a club. His was just one of numerous injuries endured by protestors. This fateful day—“Bloody Sunday”—March 7, 1965, is commemorated annually. People at home watched in shock and dismay as the protestors were brutalized. The ferocity of the images pricked the consciousness of the nation and resulted in many joining the cause. Their humanity wouldn’t allow them to sit passively and watch other humans decimated.
Fast forward 55 years…
On March, 13, 2020, the US declared a state of emergency in response the COVID-19 pandemic. US citizens across the country were advised to shelter-in-place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that had invaded our shores. Away from typical distractions of work, traffic, and the hustle of everyday life that usually occupies our minds, many sat fixated on the television as we watched cases and mortality increase. Amidst this vacuum, we were confronted by shocking visuals: a video of a police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In the context of social distancing, Americans were challenged to face themselves. The reality of racial inequities in the US, previously shielded by a cognitive dissonance (e.g., “we don’t know what happened before the video”), was now proximal and palpable. We had nowhere to go. We had to sit with it. As in the 1960s, we were outraged by the inhumanity – as we should be.
As a Black woman, it’s difficult to think of a time when I wasn’t completely aware of race relations in this country. Seeing others enlightened and even corroborating the stories of injustice in the US that I have known to be true as early as middle school was encouraging. However, I’d like to challenge our comfort a bit further. The same racism that cracked the skull of a peaceful protestor and kneeled on the neck of an unarmed man is the racism that ignores a black mother’s request for medical attention, dismisses the reports of pain of a black patient with a clearly broken bone, or assumes that black bodies die sooner as a matter of biology. Racism is both the lifeblood and the heartbeat of racial disparities in health and healthcare.
Racism built the communities in which we live, the public schools we are able to attend, and the types of businesses in our neighborhoods that provide basic necessities, such as food. It built our Capitol building and the home of our nation’s chief executive. It even built our most premier educational institutions and their medical and research empires. Racism lives in our silence as much as (if not more than) it lives in violence. It quietly sits within the foundations of our institutions and leaches its contaminants into our social spaces in a way that is both proliferative and reinforcing.
So, where do we go from here? Congressman Lewis once recounted a story of hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. He spoke of:
Though it may mean protesting, it may also be interpreted as taking an active role in addressing health disparities in our respective places. If you’re reading this, your place is probably in healthcare, research, policy, or in the community; if not, it could also be finance, criminal justice, human resources, or administration. Regardless of your position, everyone can and MUST make a contribution if we desire to see the best of what our society could be. As during shelter in place, if we can steady ourselves long enough, we will hear the echoes of humans in despair beckoning our individual and collective humanity to act. Together, we have to “slow the spread” of racism—a pandemic1 that stretches as far back as our nation’s earliest years.
Let’s honor Congressman Lewis. This is our bridge. Let’s be human.
- Williams DR and Cooper LA. COVID-19 and Health Equity—A New Kind of “Herd Immunity” JAMA. 2020;323(24): 2478-2480.
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Anika L. Hines, PhD, MPH, is an Assistant Professor in Health Behavior and Policy at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. Using an interdisciplinary and community-engaged approach, she studies the association of chronic stress with hypertension and cardiovascular-related outcomes through a health equity lens. You can follow her tweets @DrAnikaLHines