Juneteenth, Really?

If hearing about the long struggles toward racial justice bothers you, read no further.

If a Black woman venting about generations of innumerable good people sacrificing toward equality and equity while so much remains grotesquely undone and unfair is annoying to you, skip my jeremiad.

Don’t get me wrong, as a Black woman, I fully acknowledge and appreciate those who’ve gone before, above, and beyond, and provided the mentorship and bravery that allows me to even exist. I am forever grateful to my mother and Cheryl Boyce who started and led the very first ever office of minority health back in Ohio, and whose voices for health equity provide a template for health justice in a country struggling to achieve its democratic promise. I appreciate my parents for the nonviolent but assertive civil disobedience and human rights struggles they engaged in with class, humility, and academic rigor that made significant strides in my hometown, providing recognized leadership for future generations.

I revere and respect Martin King, Sidney Poitier, Hazel Scott, Patricia Hogue, Jane Elliott and the myriad other activists, mentors, educators, martyrs, lost souls, and of course those still living and fighting in the struggles to overcome racism–bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

But I am at the same time still grieving the losses that continue to pile up:

*police gun violence accounting for 135 deaths of unarmed black people since 2015 alone

*disproportionate incarcerations despite similar crime rates across ethnicities costs billions of dollars (better spent on universal education or healthcare!?) to all Americans and garner the US the dubious distinction of having the most people imprisoned in the world

*Despite having one of the most expensive healthcare systems in the world, Black maternal and neonatal mortality is or should be a source of national shame at several times that of other countries

Other data are copious, distressing, available and as longstanding as these and needn’t be belabored here.

In light of these statistics, I am wondering: exactly what are we celebrating?

There is good news as states and municipalities across the country are beginning to recognize that racism is a public health crisis, even though I wrote personally and as a healthcare professional to CDC on back in 2015 asking them to do so and was gaslighted by the very head of the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity to whom I spoke directly on the matter. Her response was, “Just what do you want us to do about it?” When I responded, “Simply announce and recognize it to start the process!” she refused.

Now, as the outgoing head of CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky has recognized it as “a serious public health issue.” At what point does an issue become a crisis? When the population in question is White? When the cost exceeds a certain amount? Because here is what the National Institutes of Health finds:

New research shows that the economic burden of health disparities in the United States remains unacceptably high. The study, funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of the National Institutes of Health, revealed that in 2018, racial and ethnic health disparities cost the U.S. economy $451 billion, a 41% increase from the previous estimate of $320 billion in 2014.

Would it need to cost more than that? How many lives would it take?

I have spoken to current thought leaders like David R. Williams, Camara Jones, Christina Bethel, Jane Elliott and Rev. James Lawson about these issues and they remind me that “at least we are beginning to have these difficult conversations.” Is that worth celebrating?

Maybe my decades of activism on this have begun to frustrate me a bit–so much striving yet so many glaring disparities remain. I started a petition online calling on those of good will to join my voice to CDC for their recognition and at least have nearly 17K signatures. Is that worth celebrating? I have provided clinical guidance and leadership to the Oregon Health Equity Task Force for HB 4052 which at least recognizes racism’s public health crisis in Oregon and at long last authorizes a fraction of the budget we requested to begin to address this. Is it irony or cynicism that the legislature acknowledges the crisis and then dithers for a year or so in making a relatively small amount of funding available? Is that worth celebrating?

In medicine, before a cure can be undertaken, the diagnosis must be disclosed, discussed and questions and answers exchanged. How can we hope to cure, repair, mitigate the centuries of damages done by racism when we cannot even officially and unequivocally make the diagnosis? And as opponents and advocates for reparations debate across this nation, I must also ask: How can we repair that which is still being harmed?

Leslie Gregory is a PA-C focusing on Preventive Cardiology and is Executive Director, Right to Health