Five names out of the 894 on the Killed by Police Database, which lists the names of individuals killed at the hands of police officers just this year. The Washington Post’s tracker lists 738 and counting. The Guardian—828. The number is appalling. The loss of life is inexcusable.
On September 30th, 2016, members of the Larner College of Medicine and University of Vermont College of Nursing and Health Sciences communities gathered in Hoehl Gallery to identify ourselves as allies in the fight to dismantle the machine of institutionalized racism, and show support for the White Coats 4 Black Lives movement.
White Coats 4 Black Lives was created in December of 2014 after the National White Coat Die-In demonstrations. Their mission is “to eliminate racial bias in the practice of medicine and recognize racism as a threat to the health and well-being of people of color.” Their goals include: 1) Raise awareness of racism as a public health concern, 2) End racial discrimination in medical care, and 3) Prepare future physicians to be advocates for racial justice. After the blatant murders of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott in early September, my emotions were raw. I was grieving for black and brown people laid out in the streets, slain by the very people promised to serve and protect them. I was furious that I was expected to then sit in lectures with colleagues and mentors that included no mention of the police killings–of being expected to function at my highest level without being given a space for mindfulness and conversation about this loss. A friend of mine described the juxtaposition of these feelings as “like living in two Americas.” One foot is rooted in my community and culture. The other foot stands tentatively in the academic world that struggles to remain above the social discord going on around it.
The concept of living in “two Americas” may resonate with many of my classmates. As healthcare professionals and pre-professionals, we are constantly presented with medical education veiled in “race-based medicine.” Dorothy Roberts, scholar, social justice advocate and author of Killing the Black Body, explains that “[race based medicine] assumes that people of different races are biologically distinct from each other and suffer from diseases in peculiar ways.” We are often taught to recognize the most superficial differences in humans as some biological justification for their maladies, while simultaneously being deprived of lessons explaining how societal constructs cause certain populations to develop those particular diseases at higher rates. As medical students, we are uncertain whether to question these lessons. Frequently, the result is an incomplete picture of our patients.
The importance of eliminating race-based medicine and living in “two Americas” is clear. We cannot strive to end unjust policing policies without also seeking to end the injustice within the healthcare system. Americans of color in 2016 still face higher rates of mortality and worse health outcomes in comparison to their white counterparts. The institutionalized racism at the root of the violence experienced by people of color across our nation is the same racism that drives health inequity. Racism is a public health crisis, and the state of Vermont is not immune to its effects. White Coats 4 Black Lives calls physicians and medical students to action.
“The privilege that physicians possess within society and within the professional hierarchy of medicine provides [us] with power that can be used to spearhead policy changes to advance racial justice locally and nationally. Using this “physician privilege” to advocate for social change is necessary if we are to eradicate the systemic illness that is racism.”
My hope is that as people stood together at the White Coats 4 Black Lives event they felt like they were part of a community that educates each other about recognizing and overcoming implicit bias, supports each other in our mission to work for and with the community in order to more closely examine the factors that directly and indirectly affect our patients’ health, and encourages each other to go beyond what is required into what is necessary for social change.