Last week we found ourselves sharing yet again — first with anger, then with despair — the story and horrific images of another black life being stolen by police brutality.
We tried to focus on our routine activities, like preparing coffee to help us get through another day in the hospital. Our hearts were heavy, our minds racing.
We joined the medical profession to help preserve life, to give families more time with their loved ones, and to hold the hands of the hurting. But in those moments, we were the ones hurting. Yet as we walked through the wards, we felt the weight of a suffocating silence.
As part of the shrinking 2% of physicians who are Black men, it falls on us — and on the 3% who are Black women — to speak up when our brothers are slaughtered in the streets. The emotional burden of existing in spaces that were not intended for us does not seem to be enough. No time to process or deal, we must serve as the voices for our people, paying the well-known minority tax.
We often look to our superiors, departments, or professional societies to stand up for us, to highlight the injustice, to acknowledge our pain. Time and time again we are disappointed.
Sometimes there’s a delayed generic remark, like “We stand in solidarity…” But what good is solidarity that is powerless to name what we stand against? What is this vague solidarity that cannot use the words “racism” or “police brutality”? What is this solidarity that fails to produce real change?
The push for diversity in medicine means that Black physicians like us are often courted to join institutions with the promise of inclusion. But when the institutions that recruited us remain reticent in the face of our particular pain, the promise of inclusion rings hollow.
Police brutality is our lane too
In November 2018, the National Rifle Association responded to studies cited by the American College of Physicians describing the consequences of gun violence by warning “self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” Physicians nationwide pushed back vigorously, posting photos of bloodied scrubs and operating rooms with the hashtag #ThisIsOurLane.
Physicians rightly advocate for reform of gun laws to prevent unnecessary loss of life. The victimization of Black people by credentialed law enforcement or racist vigilantes also constitutes unnecessary loss of life, and these victims also deserve our advocacy. If gun violence is our lane, police brutality must be our lane too.
Some may argue that victims of police brutality do not intersect with the medical system in the same ways that victims of gun violence do. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. A growing body of evidence demonstrates significant associations between police violence and poor health outcomes in Black people. Relative to white people, Black individuals are five times more likely to sustain injuries after police “interventions.” Simply being exposed to videos depicting traumatic killings of unarmed individuals has been associated with depression and PTSD symptoms in Black adolescents.
So whether it is the 40-year-old Black man who comes to the emergency department with musculoskeletal pain after a recent arrest, the Black woman who is 24 weeks pregnant and whose blood pressure was too high at her obstetrics visit following the shooting of her uncle by police, or the 12-year-old Black boy who, at his annual pediatrics checkup, reports trouble sleeping after watching bodycam videos, it should be apparent that police violence against Black people is a medical problem.
Even more startling is the emerging epigenetics research demonstrating that stressors endured in the present can modify genes and potentially be passed from one generation to the next. Given the potential for multigenerational health consequences and the exacerbation of existing health disparities, the imperative for action against police brutality is high.
A few days after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, the American Medical Association issued a statement denouncing police brutality. All physician advocacy organizations should do the same and publicly decry the deaths of unarmed Black men and women. Just as individual physicians spoke out against National Rifle Association propaganda, so too should they use their individual and collective platforms to voice these injustices and press for change. And just as other tragedies are acknowledged by the leadership of medical schools and hospitals, where young Black men and women are taught, trained, employed, and cared for, they should also always publicly acknowledge these killings.
Calling out police brutality and making statements of solidarity are just the beginning of this work. The medical profession must convene minds and resources and develop tangible strategic plans to combat police brutality. Our profession has done this in the past to mitigate the health consequences of tobacco products and gun violence. It’s time to turn the attention to police brutality. Just as major health organizations have provided funding for analyses of racial disparities across a variety of health outcomes, they should also support rigorous evaluations of racial disparities in deaths of unarmed Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
We are physicians when we are at work in the hospital, but we are always Black men. We don’t live in our white coats — we live in our Black skin. For those like us who experience these tragedies as terrifying, the silence of the medical community is deafening. Where loss of life due to police brutality is concerned, #ThisIsOurLaneToo.
Chijioke Nze is a resident physician in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Elorm F. Avakame is a resident physician in pediatrics in Washington, D.C. Olusola J. Ayankola is a resident physician in psychiatry at Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital. Jamaji C. Nwanaji-Enwerem is an environmental health scientist and final-year medical and public policy student at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston. The opinions expressed here are the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of their employers or schools.