Tribute & Truth: Experiencing the National Museum of African American History

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2 weeks ago, my family and I visited the National Museum of African American History.

It is said the museum was a century in the making.

When you walk in the doors, you know exactly what that means.

We happened to enter behind a black family of four. Two parents, who appeared in their mid-late 30s, and two young boys, both of whom could not have been more than 5. It was raining that day and they were all bundled up – hats, vests, scarfs, boots. Despite the aggressive gear, as soon as we got inside, off those boys ran, like they were in their own playground. While a lot of kids run everywhere they go, to see these little black boys, brothers, running free and unencumbered in this building, their building, on the National Mall, erected to honor their ancestors, standing in honor of them, was the perfect prelude to what lay before us.

The whole day, we saw babies and watched children, crawling, running, sitting, climbing. Like the little one, maybe 3, who walked up, alone, and sat next to me on a bench. Together, in silence, we watched a short video about the contributions of African American athletes. Shortly afterwards, his father and brother arrived, obviously happy to have found him. But there he was, drawn to the images, sitting still and watching intently, as people who look like him did great things. I can’t imagine what the moment felt like to him. Perhaps it was simply another age-appropriate act of independence and environmental curiosity. But sitting next to him, the moment felt full and hopeful.

But it wasn’t just the young who captured the moment, it was also the elderly. Those who entered the museum with canes and walkers, who moved with the support of their family or church or neighbors. Those draped in t-shirts commemorating their visit, who traveled across states just to be there.

I think of one woman in particular.

She walked slowly, with her weight heavily upon a cane, her white hair curled, her lips peach with pigment. A women who seemed like her daughter walked at her side, supporting her, and a young woman, maybe age 20 or so, walked in front of them guiding them towards an exhibit on Greenwood in Tulsa, OK. The walls were flanked with images of a town that looked ravaged by a natural disaster. The air in the small exhibit felt thin and heavy. You stood, surrounded, by a town decimated in ash. Only the actor was not an unruly Mother Nature, but rather the destructive, unpredictable, and irrepressible swell of White Supremacy that leveled, literally burned, an entire neighborhood, notably one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the country at that time, to the ground. As I stood, solemnly confronting the wall-sized photos and recovered personal items, next to what appeared to be a family of women, I watched as the elder asked the youngest to read the inscriptions to her. I don’t know if it was the photos, the women, or the collective recognition of what black people have endured, suffered, and lost in this country they have called home – but I cried openly there. Left my tears, my heart, my gratitude, to those women, to that place, to the grit that rose from those ashes to trouble and inspire me.

My experience of the newest Smithosonian museum was captured in small moments and big. Moments when I stood shoulder to shoulder with history and watched as the future crawled along the floor, with a certain mix of joy and pride I can only remember having felt so vividly the morning after Barack Hussein Obama became President of the United States. There was a palpable shift in the world as this black girl turned black woman saw and was seen. Standing with my family only added to the consequence of the moment.

As science, history, literature, the arts, and public consciousness inch towards full acknowledgement, engagement, inclusion, and elevation of our presence, our personhood, our importance, and our centrality in the American experiment, this building will stand in tribute and truth. The gift is our ability to return to it, in reverence and expectation, to share that truth with our future generations.

Protest as Plea: The Uncivil Fight for Community Rights

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As Baltimore erupts in fiery protest following the death of Freddie Gray, the city joins scores of others who have recently challenged the role of police in community.

With the disproportionate representation of Black males in the correctional system and the videotaped deaths of those approached by police for seemingly petty infractions, the longstanding concern for a criminal justice system that differentially treats communities of color, is finding new relevance in cities across the nation.

But as young and old, gang-affiliated and religious alike take to the streets of Baltimore in unified protest, somehow the public unrest has garnered more attention than the issue itself. It seems, the fight for justice shouldn’t be a fight at all.

Labeled as “looters” and “thugs,” even in the very moment a community mobilizes to denounce their victimization, they are simultaneously recast as criminals, undeserving of the autonomy to freely express public discontent.

Now, my purpose in saying this is not to condone violence but to examine the ways we characterize communities of color, particularly around public displays of anger, and to look deeper at the role policing practices play in the tensions building in cities across America.

First, the idea that African-Americans are strong, aggressive, and prone to violence are antiquated stereotypes that continue to plague the public image of African-Americans today. So despite justified cause for outrage, the media often lazily resurrects these archetypes of blackness instead of investigating the source of community distress. This is both dismissive and misleading. It dismisses the understandable concerns of African-Americans by denying them the humanity of basic emotions and misleads the public by playing into the drama of stereotypes that distract from the issue.

Second, to cast the community as violent miscreants and the police as authorities of order, is to ignore the reality that both groups stand face to face at the line of protest, in confrontation with the other – and that confrontation has been violent, on both sides.

Baltimore has a long history of police misconduct and those abuses have been well-documented in Baltimore local news and recently in national outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic. So it is problematic to disavow police of any responsibility in the tensions unfolding in Baltimore and beyond, because much of that tension stems from prior police conduct. It is also important to note that when police are outfitted in riot gear to patrol neighborhoods shield-first, it may incite conflict between the authorities and the community demonstrating for respite from police control and violence.

But ultimately policing practices are driven by local and state public policy, and it is that policy that criminalizes poor, communities of color and gives police license to penalize insignificant infractions. Those infractions lead to incarceration rates that cumulatively threaten the cohesion of Black families, the strength of the local economy in Black neighborhoods, the voting power of majority Black districts, and the upward mobility of young Black males seeking to enter the workforce. The mass incarceration of African-Americans may also impact child and community health.

So as we critically look at the role of police in communities, we must also investigate the policy environment that makes that role possible. Because while the police are the front lines of the justice system, they are certainly not the extent of the problem.

And as tensions unfold across the country, we have to shift the conversation to the reasons for protest. Instead of dismissing demonstrators as thugs defiling the sanctity of American business, perhaps we should look beyond stereotypes to uplift the sanctity of their lives and acknowledge the exasperated plea of a community seeking justice. Sometimes that plea is venerable in its non-violent supplication, and sometimes it is marred by the violent frustration of a community long-ignored. But aren’t we all, both the civil and uncivil among us, deserving of justice?

Police Violence and Public Health

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In the wake of Sandy Hook, the response from physicians, and pediatricians in particular, was astounding. The tragic deaths moved doctors to address gun violence and its health consequences.

But week after week, as black boys who could be my sons and black men who could be my father, are shot and killed by police, doctors remain silent. As a pediatrician, I’m appalled.

We are watching a public health problem unfold in front of us and we aren’t doing anything to stop it.

When someone is involved in a police shooting, they are at risk for injury, disability, and as we’ve seen, death. But those who witness the trauma may also be affected. And if they are children, that effect may follow them into adulthood.

Public police shootings turn neighborhoods into minefields where African-Americans fear suddenly finding themselves in harms-way. Those who escape the line of fire are then victimized by the ever-present fear of harassment, incarceration, injury or death.

Like the trauma experienced by war veterans, living under the threat of unprovoked police violence triggers intense emotional and physical stress, even in moments of relative safety.

The chronic stress that fear generates, may place African-Americans at increased risk for health problems like heart and lung disease, and depression.

If we’re going to understand and address the impact police violence has on community safety and health, particularly for communities of color who are disproportionately victimized, we have to treat it the way we treat all threats to health. That means collecting data to quantify the magnitude of the problem, developing screening guidelines to identify those at risk, training medical staff to refer those at risk of impending danger, and funding interventions that address community violence including police violence.

Tonight, too many parents will tuck their children into bed, only to worry that tomorrow, their curious 10-year-old may be the victim of a police shooting because the combination of a growth spurt and black skin threatened their life. Today, we have to do
more to recognize the worry in our community and prevent those fears from becoming reality.

* This piece was featured on Northern California’s NPR affiliate KQED as a perspectives piece. It airs live on April 29th at 6:43am, 8:43am, and 11:30pm. To hear an audio reading of the piece on KQED’s website, click here.

Walter Scott and a Pediatrician’s Conscience

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The recent killing of Walter Scott was another brutal reminder of the home African-Americans wake to daily. Their America, is one where your father might not come home at night, because his brake light went out and that cost him his life. It’s a place where petty crimes are penalized by life sentences, doled out on the streets by the very men and women charged with their protection. But too often, they don’t find protection. And black men and boys are left lying there, without aid or comfort, in a pool of their own blood, for all to see the boundaries of permissible police conduct.

For there is no crime too small for which black fathers and sons may face imminent death. For some, death may merely be a traffic ticket away. And for others, no crime is even necessary. Simply disobeying social expectations, or committing crimes against the social order, can threaten an African-American’s life, if one encounters the wrong officer or wrong neighbor, wearing the wrong hoodie or playing with the wrong toy. For them, their public presence can be a justifiable cause for homicide and their assailant may not even face trial.

So as the death toll rises, the leading cause of death for black males aged 10-24 fails to shock anyone – it’s homicide. But you might be surprised to know that doctors are doing little to nothing about it.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, the response from physicians, and pediatricians in particular, was astounding. But as boys who could be my sons and men who could be my father, lie in the street, week after week, the medical profession is silent and I’m frankly appalled.

These deaths should weigh on every physician’s professional conscience. They rip into the very fabric of our degree and challenge the meaning of practices essential to modern medicine – harm reduction and disease prevention. If we, as a field, fail to even acknowledge the lives lost, let alone devise systematic interventions, at a certain point, we fail to honor the oath of our practice and to serve the core of our professional obligations.

Targeted police violence against African-Americans is a public health problem and it uniquely affects children. Yet to this date, there has been no public statement on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, or any other professional medical association to my knowledge, recognizing the tragic deaths of African-American men and boys across this nation. So while my lone voice is hardly sufficient, I offer these words as a part of my professional responsibility to care for the lives of all my patients, big and small.

  • The toll police killings take on black families, including those not directly involved in the events of violence, matters and the chronic stress it generates may adversely affect family dynamics, community safety, and the mental and physical health of African-Americans of all ages.
  • Adolescents, both male and female, commonly participate in risk-taking behaviors as a part of their development as youth. Those same behaviors can have significant and lasting costs for African-Americans, as they may suffer higher rates of arrest, incarceration, and death.
  • Efforts should be taken on behalf of physicians caring for black families to discuss the toll police killings have on health. If there is concern for impending danger, appropriate referrals to local authorities and community organizations should be sought on behalf of the physician, nurse, or medical staff.
  • Preventative health screening guidelines for children and adults should include risks of gun violence, including police violence.
  • Training will be needed for physicians to appropriately discuss these concerns with families, screen youth for risk behaviors, and refer at-risk individuals to further services.
  • Funding for clinical interventions to address police killings should also support local organizations that work to decrease community violence.

Too many parents tuck their children into bed, only to worry that tomorrow, their curious 10-year-old may be the victim of police-related violence because the combination of a growth spurt and black skin threatened their life. Too many physicians either don’t know that, or don’t care. Because I’d have to imagine that if we knew and cared, we’d be doing something very different in medicine.

This is my plea for us to do something different. Silence is not okay. This is our responsibility, just as it is for all Americans to re-think what these deaths mean for our society. Because if this legacy of violence isn’t weighing on everyone’s conscience, we are all doing something wrong.