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Black suffering has once again made national headlines for the world’s consumption.
This has unfortunately become the norm in the era of COVID-19 as Black communities have been ravaged by the coronavirus’ deadly impacts — an exacerbation of a previously existing pandemic: racism.
Racism once again has reared its ugly head with the tragic recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade. In just three months, Black people across the nation have had to mourn the unjust taking of these Black lives, all whilst attempting to survive a virus hunting them down as if they had targets on their backs.
In response to these tragic happenings people have taken to social media to express how “shocked” they have been by recent news. But for Black people we know all too well this is just an extension of the systemic racism threaded into the fabric of America.
This past Saturday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow released a statement in response to the ongoing protests across the country. In it he harkens back to his experiences as a high school student during the civil unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and goes on to suggest a way forward by centering solutions in American ideals. While I appreciated his attempt to provide comfort during these challenging times, as a Black woman I know all too well that American ideals have rarely benefited Black people.
While I wish I could believe in the Constitution and the illustrious “American Dream,” my experiences as a Black woman are poignant reminders that such luxuries were and continue to be reserved for a select few. In 1787, the founders of our country came together and decided my body and those of my ancestors were only worth three-fifths of that of a white body. My ancestors then had to endure centuries of lynching, brutalization, and terror before their most basic access to the ideals of this country would be recognized with the 14th Amendment. Even with this formal gesture, Black people have continued to suffer disproportionately at the hands of systemic and interpersonal racism in this country. Therefore, when we see yet another Black body on national television, it hurts us, it angers us, it maddens us; but it does not surprise us. We know that since the inception of this country our existence has been deemed subordinate, and the current state of affairs is a reminder of that.
The evidence lies in the overrepresentation of Black people as “essential workers,” whose lives will be put at risk due to the current administration’s cursory move to reopen the country against the advice of public health experts. The proof also lies in the disproportionate infection and mortality rates of Black people due to COVID-19 and the disparate arrest rates of Black people in response to social distancing policies. COVID-19 didn’t create these disparities on its own. The virus has simply propagated itself along the lines of inequality America drew upon its creation.
Therefore, if the improvement of the Black condition in this country hinges on American values, we have already failed. Because we cannot expect a system that was never designed for us to protect us. Our discussion around race in higher education has mostly prioritized white comfort and has largely omitted the essential facts outlined above. Only time has changed.
Educators, leaders, and decision-makers must understand that lunch talks, diversity and inclusion committees, and Black and brown faces on pamphlets are all futile efforts if not coupled with anti-racist practices. It is time that unconscious bias trainings turn into honest conversations about systemic racism, police brutality, and power. It is time for organizations to look internally at their own power structures and answer tough questions like why qualified Black professionals aren’t advancing within their institutions. Equally important in this self-assessment is to address how institutions have been complicit in deepening the roots of systemic racism. This includes divestment from private prisons, abolishment of racialized medicine, and acknowledgment of higher education’s role in driving gentrification in the communities they inhabit.
As a current medical student and future healer, my version of the American dream includes medical and academic institutions reckoning with their role in harming my community. This goes beyond statements of solidarity and the creation of more committees. It consists of true allyship that can only be obtained through anti-racism.
This is the dream I hope to obtain — one where Ahmaud, Breonna, George, and Tony might have lived to see fifty years of age. The traditional sense of the American Dream is an exclusionary one. It’s time to forge a way forward and craft a new one, but first we must study and learn from the nightmare the first one became.
LaShyra T. Nolen is a rising second-year student at Harvard Medical School.
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