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.