I am MLK

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Unprovoked and un-prosecuted police brutality that preys upon people of color.

Separate and unequal education systems that consistently fail poor children of color.

Segregated housing that concentrates poverty and consequently, crime, in communities of color.

A discriminatory wage gap for women and people of color that bolsters growing wealth inequality.

And preventable patterns of disease that plague poor communities of color.

The contemporary threats to equality in American life are disturbingly similar to the injustices that emboldened leaders of the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years ago. But while the issues that define our time are unsettlingly familiar, the opportunities to act are profoundly different.

With the advent of social media, ordinary individuals now have unprecedented access to both publish and consume publicly curated news. This step to democratize information creates a space for enduring public discourse and a real-time portal into the many faces of racism, sexism, classism, and cultural ethnocentrism that endanger our most basic American values.

The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement freed us from the tyranny of these “isms” at the ballot box, in the classroom, in our neighborhoods, in our work places, and in the public spaces of American life. In so doing, the acts of thousands of courageous Americans set a new precedence for our nation to reaffirm its commitment to liberty and justice.

Today that commitment is under attack. And although the challenges we face are formidable, our responsibility is great. So who will rise to the challenge? Who among us is willing to take the protests and the hash-tags into the daily routines of our lives where the insidious acts of racism, sexism, classism, and cultural ethnocentrism threaten the values we hold most dear? Who will fight for equality today?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an exemplary American who challenged us to rise to the height of our humanity. But we cannot wait for another visionary to bring us to the mountaintop.

The urgency of justice demands we act now, one institution, one industry, one community, one person, one step at a time.

If you are a teacher or school administrator, challenge the “zero-tolerance” policies that forge the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately shunting students of color and students with disabilities, as early as preschool, into the criminal justice system for routine school infractions.

If you are a local government official, question the redistricting policies that dilute the voting power of minorities and overturn voting registration policies that may prevent the elderly, the poor, or people of color from exercising their constitutional rights.

If you are a housing developer or real estate speculator, invest in mixed-income housing that enable people, regardless of race and class, to share the public benefits of education, parks, and recreation that flourish in proportion to local tax appropriations.

If you are an environmental advocate, lobby to protect poor communities of color from the industrial pollution that threatens their air,soil, and water quality and ultimately jeopardizes their health.

If you are a police officer, challenge “stop and frisk” policies that disproportionately target Black and Latino individuals and confront the biased assumptions that may lead you to suspect persons of color or treat them with excessive force.

If you are an writer, publisher, producer, or actor, demand that our films and books offer a genuine look into the lives of all Americans. This requires equal representation on the written page, behind the camera, and in front of it, to reflect the diversity of the American experience.

If you are a student, consider if women are disproportionately subject to sexual violence on your campus, and stand in solidarity with the victims in demanding that your faculty and administration protect young women and their bodies.

If you are a business administrator or owner, critically look at your workforce, from the leadership to the average employee to the staff and ensure that the process by which you recruit, hire, and compensate employees reflects equity in opportunities for women and people of color.

If you are a physician, confront your implicit bias and how your differential treatment of patients by race, gender, or class may contribute to deadly health disparities.

As Dr. King sagely foretold, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The racism exacted with the lethal precision to take the life of Eric Garner is just as pernicious as the sexism that ostracizes and threatens the lives of victims of sexual assault on our college campuses. It is time to connect the dots between all forms of oppression in American life and work towards justice.

The modern movement for equality will be powered by the daily diligence of the masses, not the brilliance of one leader. We all must summon the courage to go to into our work place, our classroom, our community, and our home, and engineer justice, create equality.

As we remember, with pride and gratitude, the life of Dr. King, let us not rely on his memory to ensure our liberty and justice. Without his living example, let us be his voice for change.

I am MLK.

This week, join @schumerj and I, as we tweet out our commitment to change our workplace, community, or social networks using the hash-tag #IamMLK and let’s build a coalition of leaders for justice. Also look for an upcoming 2-part piece on racism in the American health care system and what we can do about it. In solidarity, Rhea MD

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The Final Word on Black History Month: My Manifesto

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Every February, some of you invariably ask, why do we have Black History Month? Predictably, some of you will pose this question to the black people you know. As a black person, I offer you my final word on the subject, my manifesto, if you will.

Why Black History Month? Consider these reasons.

#1. You don’t know black history and if you are an American, that means you don’t know part of your own story.

The struggle to teach African-American history in our children’s classrooms continues. Take Chicago Public Schools, for example. They represent the 3rd largest school district in the country and despite having a mandate to teach African-American history for more than 2 decades, it was not until December of 2013 that they officially announced plans to implement a formal, yearlong, integrated African-American Studies curriculum into their public schools.

Without normalizing and institutionalizing African-American history into our collective forums for public discourse, we segregate ourselves from the breadth of the American experience. In so doing, we fail to capture an essential truth about America, that we are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population that has benefited from the contributions of people of color from our founding.* Every time we resist that central truth, we deny the very thing that makes us American, our shared history.

#2. You need to say thank you.

As does everyone who has benefited from the contributions of African-Americans to American life. Whether it be for the traffic light that safely regulated your morning commute (thank you Garrett A Morgan!) or the blood transfusion that saved your loved one’s life (thank you Charles Richard Drew!) or the vaccine that prevented your child from dying from a preventable illness (thank you Henrietta Lacks!), we must acknowledge the ways in which our lives are enriched because black people consistently made, and continue to make, defining contributions to our society.

And here I’ve only listed a few examples of notable inventions.

What of the impact of African-Americans on the evolution of music in this country? It is almost unquantifiable. From the folk music, bluegrass, and jazz that drew from the tonality of negro spirituals to the rhythmic beats of rock-n-roll, doo wop, disco, funk, soul, rap, and hip hop that emanate from urban America, African-American culture has created or influenced virtually every aspect of American pop culture through music, including the trending fashion, dance, and American vernacular that grew out of these popular genres. Just ask Elvis Presley’s modern-day protegé Miley Cyrus. Twerkin’ ain’t easy and that charismatic rump-shakin’ didn’t start at the VMAs.

Generations of Americans are being raised in a culture that has deep and expansive roots in the African-American experience, but one that is equally devoid of public and enduring recognition of the contributions of African-Americans. Assuming the cultural expression of a group of people, without acknowledging said group, undermines their importance and in some ways, denies their humanity as it assumes they do not have the right to own their own expression. This is called misappropriation and it is the result of an amnestic historical memory, that is so short, it fails to encompass the areas in which our stories are linked and our lives find common ground. But fear not, the cure for misappropriation is simply a proper thank you.

And what of the countless unknown African-Americans who have given of their lives to protect the honor and safety of our country? Next month, President Obama will celebrate some of those men for their distinguished military service and award them the nation’s highest commendation given for combat valor, the Medal of Honor.** If the President’s actions here may serve as an example, when people give of their time, service, and sometimes their lives, for the betterment of our free republic, we must, even if belatedly so, say thank you.

Finally, I think it generally true, that when you honestly appreciate another person’s culture and life and consider their past and their future indelibly connected to your own, you are less likely to instantly think them a criminal, and “stand your ground.” Perhaps what we should “stand our ground” for is the recognition of the humanity in each other. Because when you appreciate people, you don’t shoot them and if Black History Month offers nothing else, perhaps it can serve as a moment for you to embrace African-Americans and in so doing, help bring our sons home safely at night.

#3. You don’t know black people.

If you keep a running tally of how many black people you know or feverishly defend the fact that you “have black friends,” you may not have had the intimate interactions that allow you to disconnect individuals from the stereotyped characteristics you associate with their race. In other words, if Joe is your “black friend,” he’s not really your friend and you don’t really know Joe.

But that’s okay. Perhaps you live in one of the few ethnically monolithic enclaves in our country, or somehow your only exposure to black people has been through The Cosby Show, or The Chappelle Show, or when Kanye upstaged Taylor. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to branch out, meet new people, new BLACK people, and see what all the hype is about. The African-American experience is as varied as it is rich and our limited representation in the media doesn’t nearly approximate what it might be like to actually know us, dine with us, laugh with us, grow with us.

On a deeper level, if, as a society, we continue to live segregated lives in which we form ethically homogenous social circles, we will never have a basis from which to collectively digest, interpret, and process the complicated transactions that take place between the disparate cultures represented in our communities. Furthermore, challenges that require understanding another culture’s experience and the historical impacts of institutionalized discrimination, like for example, health disparities, or the educational achievement gap, or the disproportionately low rates of African-American women in the health professions, or the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African-American males, will remain insurmountable.

#4. You don’t like black people.

And frankly, black people may not like you either. And yet here we are, continuing to co-exist. So what should we do about it?

Get over it!

There is a reconciliation that needs to occur around issues of race in America and I’m not talking about tolerance. Tolerance is complacency in the face of continued unrest. It is offering separate but equal, instead of demanding that equal be the standard for equal. To heal the massive division in this country around racial injustice, we have to actively confront our bias to move on, even when that bias is unconsciously harbored.*** Black History Month offers us the first step to do this. As the great American poet, Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Today, we face continued affronts to equality in this country as some Americans seek to marginalize groups they just don’t like. Look what is happening in North Carolina and Ohio to undermine voter’s rights, or in Arizona, where a bill to refuse service to gay Americans made it all the way to the Governor’s desk before being vetoed! Here, our broken history repeats itself and if we aren’t careful, we may all eventually find ourselves less free to pursue liberty and happiness. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and we must take a lesson from black history to see the trend repeating itself and threatening all of our freedoms. The solution is to challenge prejudice at every point it rears its ugly head, starting with ourselves.

#5. You are black and yet you feel disconnected from the African-American experience and the Africana Diaspora.

When historian Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, it was a part of a larger effort to cultivate ethnic pride. As the trans-Atlantic slave trade scattered Africans across the western continents, it violently divorced black people from the rich ancestry that informed who they were. The absence of that foundation created a dangerous space for black people to be defined outside themselves, by their new roles and their new lives.

One dynamic of racism that is as inconspicuous as it is pernicious, is the effect of internalized racism on the African-American psyche. It is the wilted acquiescence to the accusers taunts, that you are as they say you are, be that ignorant, useless, dirty, ghetto, lascivious, pugnacious, unworthy, or unlovable. Internalized racism breeds a self-hatred that dissolves the bonds between people who share the detested characteristic.

In short, racism shames blackness.

And internalized racism is the insidious acceptance of inferiority. It acts to separates people from their value and their ethnic community.

For these people, for us, Black History Month is a moment to affirm and accept our value; to remember who we are and where we come from. Despite the positions of poverty and war in which many of our peers struggle today, both here in urban America and abroad in Latin America, Haiti, and Africa, we are not how and where we live. Our worth is not defined by our struggle but rather by the fervor with which we reclaim what has always been our gift, our blackness.

Now, I am not as presumptuous as to conclude that a month is sufficient time to heal a pain that stretches centuries into our past and finds new meaning in the systematic marginalization of black people across the globe. But I will say this, we have to start somewhere and we need to start together. Perhaps, at its very best, this month can cultivate the ethnic pride needed to combat racism, whensoever, and howsoever, we may face it. Because when you don’t feel worthy, you don’t act worthy and racism has become a self-fulfilling, self-injurious prophecy in the African-American community, and I would argue across the African diaspora. It is time to mend the broken fences in our community, to let people in and heal together. Let this be our chance.

Here’s my final word.

As the thread of African-American culture weaves throughout the American experience, it informs who we are as a nation. While a month is hardly sufficient time to truly appreciate the weight of the African American influence on American culture, perhaps it can serve as both a reminder and an invitation:

A reminder to engage in the self-exploration required to overcome the distraction of modern racial discourse that dichotomizes and compartmentalizes our history in a way that disconnects the culture we consume from the historical process by which it was created;

And an invitation to collectively share in the creative brilliance, ingenuity, and public service that defines the contributions of Black artists, musicians, writers, activists, playwrights, poets, scientists, philosophers, physicians, engineers, civil servants, lawyers, filmmakers, educators, servicemen and women, entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers.

These contributions enrich our experience as Americans. So on this, the last day of Black History Month 2014, let this be the start of celebrating our shared America history. Because, we, too, sing America.

* Although I must clarify here, that sovereign nations existed on this soil prior to the arrival of Europeans or Africans and the true founding of this land must always be credited to the Native, indigenous people of this continent.

** This award was also given to Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who were previously overlooked for recognition because of discrimination.

*** If you are ready to confront your unconscious bias, take the Harvard Implicit Association Test here!

Trayvon

Though much has been said, I feel a need to publicly recognize what has happened. Publicly. For when time has pacified our resolve and memory fails to do justice to the pain we felt, and new problems have filled our consciousness, so in that space, in that unformed future, even there, there is some record, some institutional recognition of what happened to Trayvon and why it mattered. Even if that institution is just the internet. And the memory is just my blog.

It was like the taste of blood in your mouth when you cut your gums with floss. It tastes strange, but familiar. It is less a wound, than a numb reminder of your sensitivity. You know it shouldn’t be there and yet it has always been there, pulsing under the surface.

I am of a generation that had forgotten. A generation whose survival did not depend on the stories of my grandparents or great grandparents or great, great grandparents, ushering me to safety with the shield of their experience. No one had to teach me how to live in a world where black men who upset white sensibilities were killed without reason or retribution or where black women existed as both the object of white men’s desire and their disgust. We were beyond that. I was a classmate, a peer, a colleague, and a friend. Race informed my life. It defined many of my experiences. But it is not my life. I do not wake to escape the burden of my race every day and succeed in spite of it. I am of a generation that with the right dose of education and opportunity have been enriched by my experience of race, emboldened by the history of my people, and empowered to define my own path.

And then there was Trayvon. Well, there was Rodney King and Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant…and then there was Trayvon. And those are only the ones who come to the top of my head as I write this and the ones who have been named in the news. What of the others? What of the nameless, young brown lives lost every year in Detroit, Saint Louis, Oakland, Baltimore, and Chicago? What of the more than 50% of African American males aged 10-24 who will die of homicide in the US?

And what of those who live? What of that time Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested outside of his own home in Cambridge and when Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting and frisked in a NYC deli? And those are only recent examples of the most famous and prestigious among us. I mean, President Obama even admitted to being the undeserving target of fear and suspicion.

What of my own father who was asked to get out of the car for an impromptu frisking after being stopped by the police, despite our entire family being in the car, being in our own neighborhood, and never being issued a ticket or citation for any wrongdoing. I was only 8. When he returned to the car, I learned a different kind of silence – the silence of shared understanding, fear, confusion, and sadness.

Those are the small slights, the micro-humiliations you suffer when what you want to be melts in front of what you are. They are what Maya Angelou has called the “unnecessary insult.” What Jelani Cobb referred to as “an extended paraphrase” of history, where the unwelcome past lives all too comfortably in our present. The words disappointment or disillusionment don’t nearly explain the feeling. How do you explain realizing you live in a world where you have to remember and you have to teach your children and children’s children to remember for fear of the consequence…Where the struggles of yesterday can instantly be made your struggle of today, if you are wearing the wrong hoodie on the wrong skin tone, in the neighborhood where that threatens your life?

Don’t wonder what the fuss was about. It was about Trayvon and it is about those who have gone before him – carrying the burden of our reminders.

A New Kind of Feminism

Sheryl Sandberg recently published a book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead that some have touted as a rebirth of the American feminist movement. Others, disagree.

As an African-American pediatrician, I find the idea that women need to lean in to institutional positions of leadership to exert influence, problematic. It ignores the impact girls and women of color, who often exist outside the established order, have in our world. If we are going to assume a new feminist decree, it can’t be follow men to power. In the age of globalization and social media, the table of ideas is wide and growing and includes anyone with the courage to speak their mind. The future of feminism must abandon the constraints of traditional hierarchies, validate positions of influence women already assume in their world, and recognize the power of partnerships across cultural and gender lines. We don’t need to lean in to established hegemony, we need to change the game.

Let me explain.

Women already have power. Comprising 51% of the population, women make or influence 85% of all purchasing decisions in the United States – that’s anything from buying cars and computers to purchasing healthcare. In sum, women generate $6 trillion dollars a year in consumer spending (that’s six times the 2012 federal deficit). With the struggling auto industry, surge in online technology, and new changes in healthcare, women are literally at the center of the markets that are defining the ways we live, move, communicate, and stay healthy, and their influence is growing. In the 31% of marriages where women work, women now out-earn their husbands and it is estimated that in the next decade, women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the United States.

And it’s not just women – girls are also out-performing their male counterparts in age appropriate activities like high school completion and college enrollment; a statistic that holds true despite the girl’s race/ethnicity. If education is the path to increasing earning potential, as the data suggests it is, girls are already on track to follow their predecessors as the primary wage earners and financial decision makers for their families and communities. And if the Girl Scouts are any example, the first cookie was sold in 1917 at a high school bake-sale and is now a $700 million empire, girls already wield power too.

When 1 in 11 women now own their own business and young women of color are progressing to new heights in higher education, it is time to use the power women already possess to create equity across society. And not just gender equity.

I think we need a new kind of feminism, the kind that is not just about women (gasp) and their individual success.

This kind of feminism recognizes that the plight of women to overcome the psychological and institutional barriers to self-actualization, is shared.

This kind of feminism embraces the issues of other marginalized populations, issues like institutional racism, immigration, gay marriage, and growing economic inequality and poverty in the US.

At its core, this kind of feminism is about authenticity and choice – the ability to be oneself (whatever that means) and choose and control one’s destiny, whether that be for control of one’s body, one’s career, or one’s position in society.

It is not about having “women [run] half of our countries and companies and men [run] half of our homes.” It is about building and sustaining institutional constructs where every individual, regardless of race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or gender, can choose, and work hard to obtain, the life they want, for themselves and their families.

Ultimately, it is not about leaning in, it is about reaching out. In the age of open access technology and social networks, empowered consumers are increasingly defining national conversations that can inform and change the political and cultural agenda – building spheres of influence that are no longer beholden to traditional hierarchies of leadership. Today, collective action matters; and closing the gender gap requires more than a singular vision of what individual women “should” be doing. It is time to harness the power that girls and women already possess to create a new feminist decree: Equality, for all!

References: Click on the links