FSG condemns structural racism in all its forms and stands with Black people who have been excluded from our country’s vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Please read our full statement as well as personal reflections from my co-CEO Greg Hills.
This has been a long and painful several weeks for people of color in the United States who suffer from racist violence and especially anti-Black violence in all its forms. As a Black woman born during the height of the Civil Rights movement and mother of three young people negotiating their way in this deeply troubled and divided society, it is heartbreaking and terrifying that fifty years later this is the world they are entering. As a physician and public health practitioner, it has never been more clear just how profoundly our collective social body is ailing and in need of immediate care and resuscitation.
It was perhaps ironic that Monday, June 1, was the anniversary of the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921, when a white mob decided to eradicate a burgeoning Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This was just one in a cluster of similar episodes that spanned several years, with the peak dubbed the Red Summer. Thousands of African American residents of thriving communities like Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Omaha, and Baltimore were terrorized, beaten, and driven from their homes and their property and businesses confiscated or destroyed by angry white mobs. Hundreds of Black people were killed and all of the violence happened with the awareness, encouragement, or even under the direction of white elected officials and law enforcement. Many of these communities never recovered and the mobs never faced punishment. Most of us never learned about the massacre or the Red Summer in history class, and yet, here we are again with many of the lessons of those events still unlearned.
Over the past weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen markers on a map of our nation signifying the illness and death caused by this virus. These markers are now replaced by red dots signifying outbreaks of anguish and protest over the murder of Black people, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, and so many others. All of their mothers and fathers have experienced the soul-crushing loss of a child due to racism that all Black parents in America fear with every fiber of their being.
They largely overlap, these markers of illness, death, and despair, and we cannot be surprised. The very conditions that caused people of color to suffer disproportionately as an insensate virus swept through their communities are the same conditions that have caused people of color to suffer disproportionately due to a system that does not serve them. It was the same underlying institutional racism and unconscious bias that allowed multiple health care providers to ignore the complaints of Rana Zoe Mungin, an inspiring young Black teacher, who, despite having trouble breathing and other COVID symptoms, was dismissed as having a panic attack and refused testing several times. When she finally received care, it was too late to save her life. This same institutional and structural racism allows police departments to ignore or defend officers with patterns of bias or unjustified force and refuse to address the organizational culture that promotes silence in the face of racist misdeeds.
Words reveal your worldview, so it matters whether you describe the markers on the map as an outbreak of lawless looting, an uprising in protest of state-sponsored violence, or something in between. Words matter when you talk about either the “freedom to resume normal life” or the “responsibility to protect those most at risk.”
What is normal? Who is at risk? What does it mean to “rebuild” a system where a legacy of structural racism has led us to a point where state-sanctioned violence and the failures of public health so neatly overlap with the communities where our nation has clustered people of color through practices like redlining and other forms of housing discrimination? A colleague recently shared a “pyramid of white supremacy” that depicts dozens of both overt and subtle actions that reinforce the status quo of white dominance. At the tip of the pyramid are those few overt actions/concepts that are currently socially unacceptable, such as lynching, swastikas, the Ku Klux Klan, and racial slurs. The remainder of the pyramid consists of the dozens of subtle practices that are still acceptable: police brutality, mass incarceration, systemic disinvestment in education, predatory pay day lending, hiring discrimination, and anti-immigration policies —all of which weigh disproportionately on communities of color and especially Black communities. Also included is the denial that racism still exists and the wishful thinking that the principles of meritocracy are universally at work. Many of these acceptable forms of white supremacy are so insidious that it is hard for many white people to recognize them for what they are.
I believe we are in a crucible moment when we are being called to decide what kind of society we will forge through the intense trials of pain, disruption, and anguish we are experiencing. We have the opportunity to begin to heal our collective social body by not looking away or allowing ourselves to settle back into comfortable patterns of expressing well-meaning, but short-lived concern. It is critical that those with power and privilege, especially white people, must not look away. We must listen with humility and show with our actions that we are clear-eyed and ready to acknowledge the connection linking centuries of racism, specifically anti-Black racism, to both the lives lost due to COVID-19 and police violence. The disease wracking our collective social body has been festering for some time, so we will need courage, patience, and stamina to cure ourselves.
I believe we cannot create a more just and equitable world by working to merely “rebuild” a system where a novel coronavirus and the power of the state fall so disproportionately—and so casually—on people of color. Speaking for my organization, we choose to condemn police violence. We choose to call for comprehensive public health investment that supports all in our communities. We call, not for restarting, rebooting, or even rebuilding, but for creating an equitable and inclusive system based on human rights for everyone, starting with those fellow citizens who say, suffering from COVID-19 or with a knee against their neck, “I can’t breathe.”
There are ways we can build trust in the institutions that should and can support our communities: the private, public, and civic institutions that have been too silent. But it won’t be easy. It requires collective and inclusive action to achieve structural, systemic change. It starts by those with power thinking about the mental models that frame our understanding of whether and how the system “works” and for whom. It requires an honest reckoning of our own and our organization’s role in the system. It requires a promise to listen carefully to those who have been hurt in order to repair by changing the harmful structures in our communities. As a mother, I am motivated with a fierce urgency as I seek this for my own children and all our children. They need us to act now so they can all breathe.