The epidermis is a very thin outer layer of our skin. It is only 1 millimeter in thickness, but it contains one of the few things that seems to justify millennia of oppression between humans: pigmentation. Were it not for this tiny layer of our skin, we would all appear very similar. Thus, at its core, racism is bigotry against the epidermis, and yet this minute human difference was enough for many of our nation’s historical leaders to enable beliefs in racial superiority.
Many of these leaders, including enslavers, have streets, cities, monuments, buildings and universities bearing their names. The justification for racism in America is thin indeed, but it originates from our origin as a Nation, and continues even now to restrain us from moving forward as a society.
African-Americans have been recipients of racial prejudice since first arriving on the shores of this continent in 1619. Racial prejudice has been manifested by cruelty throughout the era of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and is still perpetuated on black people 400 years later. Astonishingly, this cruelty against blacks has been played out in plain sight: slave whippings, lynching and murders throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, and now the execution of George Floyd.
Curing America of racist behaviors requires a change in our collective views of racism as unfashionable, as anathema to society – as un-American. We have done this before largely overcoming nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, and as such, our challenge to combatting racial prejudice must be continuous and relentless.
Racism deprives us of talented contributions to our economy, promotes excessive health care expenses, promotes sociopathic behaviors; and it too often justifies violence and cruelty against other humans. We must develop a collective mindset that rejects racism in all its overt and subliminal forms. This requires a look into the heart and mirror by all Americans, and for each of us to say, “I am not inherently superior to another” “my prejudicial attitudes are flawed;” and, “I commit myself to rectifying this attitude for my benefit and for human kind and a civilized society.”
Yet, even as we commit ourselves to these virtuous attitudes, history tells us that many will refuse to listen to appeals for justice. I recall Isaac Woodard, a decorated Army veteran who was blinded at the hands of police in South Carolina upon returning from War World II -- while in uniform, for daring to ask a bus driver to wait for him to use a restroom. I have memories of the vitriolic reaction of the black medal winners who raised their fists in protest on the podium at the 1968 Olympics against racial and social injustices. And let’s not forget about Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who knelt during the playing of the National Anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality at the cost of his career. Even now, some Americans attempt to turn Kaepernick’s silent protest into a statement of disrespect against veterans, even though every war in our history has included black soldiers and sailors, starting with Crispus Attucks who was one of the first to die early in the American Revolution. The dichotomy in our public views is stunning: Americans rightfully objected last week to rioters saying, “why can’t you protest peacefully?” And yet, there is hardly a more peaceful protest than Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.
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When prejudicial attitudes degenerate to hatred based on race, religious or sexual identity, it leads those with sociopathic instincts to embrace hatred, brutality and violence. This sort of sociopathic behavior led to the tragic murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi and the lynching of nearly 5,000 other black men and women in America. It led to violence against the peaceful protectors in Selma, the water hosing of protestors in Alabama, the murder in 1964 of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, members of the Congress of Racial Equity in Mississippi, and recent killings of blacks, Ahmoud Arbery, Eric Garner and George Floyd.
For me, the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, the Civil Rights Activist ring the loudest: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Even now, America still has a chance to rid itself of the blight of racism. But to do so, everyone in our society must become “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of the hatred and the sociopathic behaviors that hatred begets. We must all get “sick and tired” of injustice and violence triggered by differences in skin pigmentation, and start to hold each other accountable to important and useful qualities, such as respect, wisdom and compassion. We must see beyond our epidermis and reach into our hearts to be cleansed of the plague of racism and bigotry.
Dr. Haywood Brown is the University of South Florida’s vice president for institutional equity. He is also the associate dean for diversity at the Morsani College of Medicine, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and USF Health’s interim chair for dermatology.