Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

Black lives matter

June 17, 2020 |2:53 min read

Black lives matter. In this moment, with cellphone cameras, surveillance cameras and even police cameras recording events, Black men, like Rayshard Brooks, on June 12; George Floyd, on May 25, and too many others, continue to be killed – no, murdered – in cold blood.

The T-shirt is the message. Thanks to Brent Wishart, facilities and construction manager at the Gillings School, for the photo.

That this could be happening now, as protestors march in the streets of our country and around the world, reveals how pervasive, and how accepted, the killing of Black people in America is, today, 155 years after African American emancipation, which is celebrated this Friday, Juneteenth.

Events of the past several weeks have begun to change the acceptability dimension. Numerous polls show that the majority of people support the protestors’ cause. If we continue to work at it; have zero tolerance for the murder of Black people by police; use changing cultural norms, laws and other means to ensure that those in law enforcement comply with their own codes of conduct; then, maybe, there is a chance for sustainable change.

As many people have said, fixing the problems of law enforcement is essential but not enough. We also must change serious inequities in the criminal justice system more broadly, and in housing, health care, education, jobs and other determinants of health. We in public health know that many factors are interrelated and affect how healthy we are. We cannot improve health in isolation when we know that health is influenced by where we live, work, how much education we have, our support systems, food, physical activity and the strength of communities. Policies affect these determinants directly and indirectly.

Every day, everyone gets messages about the degree to which they are valued. We should recognize that there is a burden of being treated, day after day, as though one is invisible, less worthy and does not matter. That’s what so many of the protestors are saying.

Systemic racism is our collective problem

Robin DiAngelo, PhD, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, who grew up poor and is white, wrote:

Our simplistic definition of racism – as intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals – engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem and that our learning is thus complete.

Statements such as ‘People just need to be taught to respect one another’ tend to end the discussion and learning that could come from sustained engagement. … Many people simply do not understand the process of socialization, and this is our next challenge.

DiAngelo said that “white people are taught that to have a racial viewpoint is to be biased. Unfortunately, this belief protects our biases, because denying that we have them ensures that we won’t examine or change them.”

White people have a lot of work to do to help build a society free from racism where everyone can thrive. (See “Robin DiAngelo: How ‘white fragility’ supports racism and how whites can stop it,” in CNN Health, June 2, 2020.)

Black lives matter. We can and must do the work to internalize and act on that apparently simple belief. Starting with our own biases is a beginning and not an end. Systemic racism ultimately requires institutional change to transform systems. We and our students are trained to change systems, and we should use our collective knowledge and skills in pursuit of that goal.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.