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Protesters hold signs that say "Love More" and "Stop Racism"

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Healing a toxic brew of hate, racism, and gun violence in America

David J. Skorton, MD, President and CEO
David A. Acosta, MD, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
March 25, 2021

Recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder illustrate how far we have to go in addressing these ills afflicting our country. Academic medicine can and must speak out against the hate that divides all of us.

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We are a nation of contradictions, and sometimes what brings out the best in us also brings out the worst. COVID-19 has inspired impressive creativity and compassion nationwide. But in times of crisis — wars, economic catastrophes and, yes, pandemics — we often turn against each other, looking for someone to blame. Even now, as we make progress on the pandemic and the economic turmoil in its wake, we continue to cast blame.

The recent focus on Asian Americans as somehow culpable for the pandemic is heartbreaking, wrong, and unacceptable. So is the frightening increase in hate, violence like the shootings that occurred in Boulder, Colorado, this week and Atlanta the previous week, and threats against marginalized groups. In the past year, hate-related incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders alone have numbered close to 4,000 — an increase of 150% in major U.S. cities, with women being victimized at more than twice the rate as men. Even before the pandemic, hate crimes had been climbing every year since 2014, with a significant rise in hate crimes against African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Jews in 2019. This is unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, what we see unfolding all around us is not an anomaly. Our nation’s founding was based on ideals of democracy and equality, yet we have continually demonstrated our inability to consistently live up to them. Today, we face a toxic brew of deepening divisions in our nation, intense anger toward certain groups, rising rates of mental health afflictions, and relatively easy access to guns.

As medical professionals, we see the deadly consequences of this mix every day. It claims the lives of too many of our loved ones, and it affects the public’s overall health. Science tells us that chronic stress — whether from the pandemic; acts of hate, discrimination, or racism; or other causes — takes both a physical and mental toll. In particular, sustained stress from racism leads to chronic disease.

Our nation, including our health care and public health systems, must focus on the health impacts caused by the dangerous mix of racism, mental illness, hate, and gun violence.

Recently, we witnessed the senseless killings of six Asian American women and two others in Atlanta, and shortly on the heels of that incident, 10 people were shot and killed in a Boulder supermarket. While the details of both shootings are still being investigated, what we do know is that guns were involved. We didn’t just battle a pandemic in 2020, we also hit a new record of more than 41,500 people killed by guns. Sadly, the situation remains dire — a fact that became even harder to ignore this week.

Our nation, including our health care and public health systems, must focus on the health impacts caused by the dangerous mix of racism, mental illness, hate, and gun violence. Together, these elements constitute a perfect storm that threatens all of us.

Here’s what’s needed:

  1. Learn how to talk to and respect each other in our workplaces. Businesses should implement interracial group dialogue training. These programs and community-based efforts can produce real change by helping people understand their differences and overcome the vulnerability of speaking about race and racism.
  2. Champion the value of immigrants to our culture and our economy. To reinforce what we’ve always known — that America, the beautiful, has attained that beauty in part because of the richness of our diverse population — we must counteract negative narratives. Activities like the movement in Tucson, Arizona, to support Asian American businesses are what we need right now. At every opportunity, let’s recognize the ways Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and others help make this country and our economy stronger.  
  3. Speak out if you witness a hate crime or incident. Hate crimes are underreported, and we need everyone to assist in putting an end to such crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center has created a handbook, “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry,” that outlines how to approach an incident you witness. Bystander intervention training has a proven track record in disrupting incidents.
  4. Enact commonsense reforms on guns. The Second Amendment is part of our nation’s fabric. But we can preserve its intent while also employing steps like universal background checks and waiting periods.

We all have a stake in this. As La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation that sponsors the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation program, reminds us, our goal is to “improve our ability as communities and as a country to see ourselves in each other, so that we can share a more equitable future for all children to thrive.”

We call on our colleagues throughout health care, public health, business, and government to take action — starting now. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, America has so many good examples of people who care for each other during times of crisis. While there are vaccines now for COVID-19, the only cure for the hate that divides us is hard work by all of us and political will from our elected leaders. We cannot wait for more tragedies.

David J. Skorton, MD, is president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

David A. Acosta, MD, is chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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