A message from Dr. Ross about George Floyd

To say the past three months have been eventful and emotional draining is an understatement. During this period my public health colleagues and I have been consumed with working on the COVID-19 crisis, especially as it affects African Americans in North St. Louis. After documenting the increased cases of COVID-19 in the African American community, we worked with the Missouri Foundation for Health to create PrepareSTL, which uses community health workers to share information about COVID and distribute PPE to communities of color. We conducted research (pdf) with the Missouri Hospital Association documenting the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 infection in North St. Louis. We finally started seeing cases and deaths plateau in the St. Louis region, but there was more tragedy in store for us.

When I first saw the video of the white police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, I broke down in tears. I could not bring myself to look at that image again for several hours. I may have told some of you why, but here is the reason. When I was a second-year medical student at Washington University in 1982, I was on my way to my apartment on Waterman Blvd. when several police cars pulled in front of me outside of the Straub’s grocery store on the corner of Maryland Plaza and Kingshighway. I was grabbed by the collar and thrust upon the hood of a hot police car by officers with their guns drawn on me. I have a chronic cervical neck injury, and I instinctively tried to move because of the searing pain caused by the officer’s nightstick on my neck, only to have the nightstick pushed harder on my neck. Of note,  I grew up in the ghettos of Memphis, Tennessee and had been stabbed and shot at several times, but I was never afraid of dying until that moment in the street in St. Louis. I yelled out why were they doing this to me, and they responded an African American male had robbed a liquor store down the street. I said I was a medical student, they had my driver’s license and my WashU student ID, as well as a backpack full of medical books. Nonetheless, they kept me there in that position for at least 10 minutes. They then held me for at least another 30 minutes, verifying that my IDs were legitimate. They only released me when a white classmate, Mark Cooper, ran down to let them know I was indeed a medical student (allies matter). They then drove off as quickly as they arrived, never considering to offer me an apology. To this day my chronic neck pain progresses, aggravated by that assault.

The George Floyd video triggered that memory, as if it just happened yesterday. You see, I am George Floyd, I am Ahmaud Arbery, I am Freddy Gray, I am Tamir Rice, I am Michael Brown, I am Eric Garner. I am every Black man who simply wanted to live his life in dignity like any other individual. Don’t let my title or position fool you; when I walk out the door on any street in my country, I am a Black man, White America’s problem – someone to be feared, hated, and discriminated against. The George Floyd killing is so raw for me. I am reaching out to you to hold you, comfort you, and move you into action based on a righteous indignation of what is so wrong with this country, but I am also wounded, and need your comfort as much as you need mine.

After reflection on both the COVID-19 crisis in Black America, and the escalating assault on people of color, I decided with another public health colleague to co-author an editorial on Racism as a Public Health Crisis. I stated that we need to have the same systematic approach to dismantling racism as we have in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, or eliminating health disparities based on social and structural barriers to health. This requires the effort of all us, and here are some of the ways you can help:

  • PrepareSTL has been remarkable successful, especially after we recruited Dr. LJ Punch to assist us. You can work with PrepareSTL as we distribute health information and PPE to vulnerable members of our community.
  • You can volunteer as a COVID contact tracer with the City or County Department of Health
  • You can join the protest against institutional racism, and you can get involved in a Get Out to Vote campaign.
  • You can join the campaign to expand Medicaid in Missouri, with the Statewide vote scheduled in August 2020.
  • You can advocate for criminal justice reform in St. Louis, starting with closing the City ‘s Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse.
  • You can mentor African American and other youth from disadvantaged communities, starting with the program medical students established at the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience.
  • You can speak out against injustices, microaggressions and macroaggressions within our institution and beyond.

At the end of the day, we are all interconnected. One person’s pain is another person’s pain, one indignity is another’s indignity. So if we are to heal, it will have to be collectively. Let’s get together, at least virtually, to share more of these thoughts and help each other through this tragic and traumatic period in our nation’s history. I look forward to us working and healing together.

Dr. Ross

Will Ross, MD, MPH

Associate Dean for Diversity
Principal Officer for Community Partnerships
Alumni Endowed Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology

 

Speaking out against institutional racism

2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Lecture

Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, presented the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Lecture at the Eric P. Newman Center on the medical campus on January 21st. Her presentation was titled “Racism and Health: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”

Watch the presentation (Box link) »

Dr. Jones is an internationally known and widely respected family physician and epidemiologist whose work focuses on the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the nation. She seeks to broaden the national health debate to include not only universal access to high quality health care, but also attention to the social determinants of health, including poverty, and the social determinants of equity.

See Dr. Jones’ full bio »

OUTmentor: Connecting the LGBTQ+ community

We are excited to announce that the Office of Diversity Programs, in partnership with LGBTQ Med and OUTmed, will be sponsoring OUTmentor, a new program for LGBTQ+ identified medical students.

OUTmentor will connect LGBTQ+ identified students with LGBTQ+ identified faculty and trainees. Through these mentorship groups, OUTmentor aims to provide support, guidance, and resources for professional development, as well as connections and exposure to the LGBTQ+ community at Washington University and in St. Louis.

Participation

We expect mentors and mentees to commit to the program for at least one academic year. Mentorship groups will consist of at least one faculty member and one or more students and/or residents. There will be two large group events for all program participants and at least three meetings of each smaller mentorship group throughout the academic year. For residents, we understand that you have very busy schedules and welcome your participation even if you cannot commit to attending all of the events.

Contact

Please email kblackwell@wustl.edu if you are an LGBTQ+ identified Washington University School of Medicine faculty member or resident who would like to participate in this program during the upcoming 2018-2019 academic year. The students are very enthusiastic about this opportunity and we look forward to showing them a strong level of support.

Learn more about LGBTQ community initiatives at the School of Medicine »

Finding hope in the era of populism

Read an essay by Dr. Will Ross, who shares his thoughts on the 2016 election.

Stunned. No better word captures the sentiment of the nation after the Presidential election; it is apropos for those who, in the wee hours of the morning, clung to hope for a Hillary Clinton victory and those who reveled in the surprising victory of the anti-establishment Trump campaign. In the aftermath of the election, there is for many a collective angst on how to chart a path forward; from the era when our imaginations were stirred with an agenda for hope and change, to one which in its nascent stage ushered in a grim ethos of nativism, racism, and sexism. The day after the election I received an email from a colleague who wondered whether the election would undermine the progress we have made, albeit erratic, in promoting diversity and inclusion on our medical campus. My answer: only if we fail to grasp the power of hope, the grace of empathy, and the strength to love.

You see, this country has been shocked and stressed before, in far worse ways than that imagined under a Trump presidency. We need only go back to September 11, 2001 for a vivid illustration of how we responded when our ideals and values came under attack. We came together as a nation to defend our democratic principles. We embraced our Muslim countrymen, many, who like Captain Humayun Khan, later sacrificed their lives defending the country they love. We were for a moment a shining example of resilience and equanimity under duress.

After the shock of 9/11, like many Americans I asked “Why do they hate us so?” I was able to regain my philosophical footing after reading works by Matt Bai, Thomas Friedman, and others who outlined the depth of despair in certain corners of the Muslim world, enabled by suppressive, autocratic regimes that in many cases found their roots in American hegemony. It became apparent that a military victory was illusory; we could only defeat extremism and the terrorism it breeds by an outpouring of American can-do optimism and support of civil institutions that are the bedrock of a liberal democracy. Fifteen years later, there is fear, palpable anger, and indignation among a sizable part of the American electorate after what is perceived as a capitulation to forces of isolationism. Yet I recall the words of a Hebrew poem – “Od lo avda kikvateinu” – “Our hope is not yet lost.” I know that the values of this nation will survive because the good in us far exceeds the hatred and intolerance we are witnessing. America, with its tradition of federalism and civil engagement, is intrinsically designed for balance and forward movement; we will indeed emerge stronger.

I am hopeful because I have personally benefitted from the hope, empathy and compassion of strangers. I am not supposed to be alive – literally. As a 15 year-old African- American growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I was assaulted by a local gang. I survived the attack, but found myself struggling to stay one step ahead of the gang members. In a remarkable act of kindness, a Jewish couple, Alfred and Shirley Wexner, gave me safe passage; inviting me in their home, providing employment, and then supporting my travel to New England to escape the violence. When I returned to Memphis years later, most of the gang members, and many of my childhood friends, were either dead or incarcerated. I am alive because of the intervention of a very wise and caring couple who had an unfailing commitment to social justice and a belief that we have more in common than we have differences.

I recall that difficult time in my life because I fervently believe that the preservation of liberal democracy depends on random acts of kindness from those who understand the universality of human suffering. I believe there is much in common between those aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, who are protesting the indignities of profiling and the brutality of the criminal justice system, and the working-class white families struggling to survive in Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. For both groups, progress has been capricious, economic stability fleeting, and the American Dream increasingly elusive.

As an example, the life expectancy of an African American male is only 66 years (of note, that trend finally is improving). On the other hand, the death rates of whites ages 25-54 increased by 11% from 2000 to 2011. Their trajectory is counter to that of Blacks, whose death rates decreased by 23% in the same time period. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of white males ages 45-54 do not have a college degree. The low-skill manufacturing jobs they relied on to sustain their families are gone, and in their hearts they know that. Their hopelessness and despair mirror that of communities of color across the nation. Their future, our future, will be brighter if we abandon the divisive rhetoric that has pitted communities against each other and if we instead wage the war on poverty as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. imagined.

There are many things for which we can advocate and march against in this period of political upheaval: against anti-immigration policies, against the assault on gender equality and a woman’s right to choose, against the invective-laden speech of newly emboldened hate groups. There are also many things for which we can advocate and march for: an expansion of clean energy and infrastructure jobs that will employ millions of Americans, affordable education that will prepare Americans for high-paying jobs in the tech industry, support of LGBTQ rights, the dispatching of mental and behavioral health counselors to address the hopelessness behind the epidemic of heroin overdoses.

Regardless of where we fall in the political spectrum, most will acknowledge the societal benefit of unifying around the values and principles our country has traditionally stood for. From that perspective, the differences between Americans on the left and right is not that far, and certainly not insurmountable. Hope, empathy, and the strength to love are needed to bring this us together. We are an exceptional, inclusive nation. Some nations are weak enough to hate. Hopefully we are strong enough to love.

Will Ross, MD, MPH

Associate Dean for Diversity
Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology

A call for civility in in-civil times

I am deeply troubled and disturbed about the collapse of civility on conversations of race and social justice in our country, but I am not confused. The continued spate of police shootings of unarmed African-American men, most recently Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the tragic shooting deaths of five Dallas policemen by Micah Johnson, an African-American Army Reserve veteran, leave us wondering whether Black and White America can ever relate to each other in a civil, empathetic manner. Many of us, irrespective of race or ethnicity, are confused on how public discord could have taken such a nosedive just as the Black Lives Matter movement seemed to be gaining momentum nationally. I am not confused, but I used to be. Growing up in South Memphis, Tennessee in the 1960’s, I developed a friendship with Shirley, the daughter of Chinese-American immigrants who operated a food market, one of few, in my neighborhood. Shirley and I had a bond; we were both socially-awkward children with big glasses and a fondness for math.

Our lives were irrevocably altered after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis on April 4, 1968. After Dr. King’s death, the word on the street was that Black radicals, including the Black Panther Party, were planning on bombing non-Black businesses in the African-American community. True enough; within days my community was in flames, with fire trucks and National Guard troops rushing to contain the riots and the fires. I recalled running to see what was happening around the corner, where I could see smoke emanating from homes and buildings. Shirley’s store, where she and her family worked and lived, was just a charred shell. I was ten years old, and not fully capable of processing my feelings of confusion, sadness, and helplessness, so I blocked the whole scene out of mind and would not revisit it until this past weekend.

Nonetheless, at age ten I still fully embraced Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent protest and un-adulterated love for humankind, even those who foment hate. My search for allies and common interest in promoting social justice took a cruel path in September, 1981 in St. Louis, Missouri. I was a second-year medical student at Washington University School of Medicine, walking back to my apartment in the Central West End after class. As I crossed over to Straub’s Grocery, on the corner of Maryland Plaza and Kingshighway, I was immediately surrounded by three or four squad cars, with policemen screaming at me to drop my backpack and hold my arms up. Apparently an African-American male had just robbed a store and I fit the profile (I was replete with a tweed jacket, button-down shirt and bow tie). When I was violently slammed onto the hood of the police car I experienced an emotion that was quite alien to me, even after growing up in the inner city of Memphis – fear.   I truly felt I could have been killed and no one would be there to refute the police narrative. After being handcuffed for what seemed like an hour, I was finally released after a white medical school classmate, Mark Cooper, saw what was happening and ran over to vouch for me. I was left feeling numb, dehumanized, and violated. I am now a professor and kidney specialist at Washington University, however my relationship with the police has been fundamentally altered; I respect the job they do but still harbor a lingering distrust.

Those two events, separated by only 13 years, are the lens by which I view the current chain of events culminating in the death of five police officers. After the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles, Ohio Governor Otto Kerner was tasked by President Lyndon Johnson to identify the root of the civil unrest. In the Kerner Commission Report, the governor remarked that we live in two Americas, one Black and one White, separate and unequal. We still do. It is to our social, political, and economic detriment as a country to not acknowledge how race and social isolation are infused in the nation’s identity. We have been socialized to function in this complex social milieu according to our race and social status – some of us develop fear, anger, and hopelessness; others privilege and entitlement. The slightest shift towards incivility can indeed tip us into widespread social unrest. In these contemporary, uncivil times, our nation’s leaders must carefully guide the conversations on race and social justice in a manner that allows us to navigate a culturally diverse society despite unconscious biases planted years ago, in our childhood. Even as we recognize that we may think differently, we should press to understand why we think differently. Such enlightened thinking has unfortunately escaped many of our legislators, who have been all too eager to openly confront President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President.

I recall the specious moment in the halls of Congress in 2009 when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama’s health policy speech by yelling “You lie!” That moment seemed to usher in an openness toward incivility. In short order, as the country slowly recovered from the Great Recession, an emboldened political right wing resumed the culture wars that have so divided this country and exploited the growing angst of the white, lower middle class by pitting them against African Americans and immigrant groups. With levels of segregation not seen since the 1960’s, the dividing line between Black and White, rich and poor, immigrant and native, became a chasm. As law enforcement policed communities in which they did not reside, at a time of unprecedented incivility among the nation’s politicians, and with an abundance of guns not seen anywhere else in the Western world, the distrust between police and the African American community reached a feverish pitch.

As a consequence, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and countless other unarmed African-American males have been killed by the police. I could have easily been on that list. Black Lives Matter. However, our collective pain and anger does not give us license to strike back in a vengeful, self-righteous manner. We must take the moral high ground and bridge the racial and social divide in America by engaging in meaningful dialogue in which we candidly discuss our thoughts and recognize our implicit biases. We must do so in a way that builds the allies we sorely need as we endeavor to promote social justice.

I never found out what happened to Shirley and her family. I hope they survived that terrible event. Their lives mattered. I am deeply saddened by the tragic, untimely deaths of Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and all the law enforcement officials who have died protecting our communities. Their lives matter, all lives matter. Yes, the criminal justice system is in serious need of reform, but those who have labored to bring the injustices to light must not be overshadowed by visceral calls to violence. Langston Hughes reminded us that “I too, sing America.” This country must treat all its citizens with the dignity, respect and protection they deserve. All Americans rightfully demand that treatment, and should march, protest, occupy and engage in civil disobedience until such rights are restored. What we are experiencing is an American problem; we are in dire need of civility to move us to resolution. Please join me as we help our nation heal.

Will Ross, MD, MPH

Associate Dean for Diversity
Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology

 

This essay was published in the St. Louis American on July 28, 2016.

Regional cooperation needed to resolve health disparities

Candid discussion and accountability called for to reduce fragmentation, address health access and social factors that influence health.

This article (pdf) by Dr. Ross appears in the April 2015 issue of Saint Louis Metropolitan Medicine.

Social determinants of health

In this podcast Dr. Ross discusses why social determinants of health are dictated largely by the distribution of wealth, power and resources in one’s environment.

Listen to the podcast »