A never-ending ancient sadness…

By John Finnegan | May 28, 2020

Dear SPH faculty, staff, and students:

“…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

George Floyd died Monday evening in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers, one of whom knelt on his neck until he stopped moving. Mr. Floyd was African American, a resident of Minneapolis and a citizen of Minnesota. How did we learn about his death? Phone video — on Facebook, Twitter. We heard his pleas and those of bystanders: “Please let him up. He can’t breathe.” Soon, he stopped moving. He’s gone.

The video is horrific and all too familiar in our communities. We remember Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and other black men here and across the country. This brutality never seems to end even in the midst of a pandemic that hits black communities especially hard: agony upon agony.

A distraught Mayor Jacob Frey, like many of us, can’t believe this is happening all over again. The black community believes it. Will black lives ever matter? Outrage pours out — yet again in the Third Precinct. Fire, riot. The four officers involved are fired within 24 hours. Investigations begin. Will hearts and minds ever change? Will there be justice for a man who shouldn’t be dead?

The actions, images, and sadness of the past two days remind us of the centuries-old racism that exists in this nation. Racism is a central moral, political, AND public health challenge as deadly as any disease. Racism denies human rights. Racism wounds and kills spiritually and physically. It has wasted people’s talents, aspirations, passions for good, and denied them the freedom in which their lives might otherwise have thrived. Gordon Allport wrote in 1954 that racism evolves when prejudice — negative feelings and beliefs focusing on a minority group because of their skin color, traditions, culture, and other factors — merges with discrimination to actively deprive groups of basic human and civil rights. Racism becomes a cultural norm of the majority, woven into the fabric of institutions.

In public health, we have seen racism’s effect in mortality and morbidity statistics that demonstrate its combined effect with poverty. We see it in chronic disease, infectious disease, and medical care. We see it in birth outcomes and education. We see it in access to finances and investment. We see it in employment, criminal justice, and imprisonment. And, yes, we see it in public health itself. Think the Tuskegee Study, for example.

African American communities have not been feckless victims of this sordid history. On the contrary, they have repeatedly struggled back time after time, decade after decade, finding leadership, strength, and resilience in the quest for equity and equal rights. There has been change in many domains and for the better. In mourning George Floyd, we also acknowledge that so much more needs to be done and it requires our collective attention and action. How do we prevent racism from ruining lives? What is the future we wish for ourselves, our children, and generations to come?

Public health is a call to leadership formed by the values of social justice and equity, and the skills and competencies of professional practice, science, and public policy. Here is a challenge to ponder: How shall we as faculty, staff, and students act in this situation to help support, heal, and address the underlying conditions that have brought us here?

That isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s a discussion we must have. Gandhi perhaps said it best: “The future depends on what you do today.”

Please take care of yourselves and each other as we try to heal and identify ways to act for change. The following University resources can provide support:

University Resources
For Students: Boynton Mental Health and Student Counseling Services, including the Mental Health Collective of Indigenous People and People of Color
For Faculty, Staff, and Family Members: Employee Assistance Program (includes virtual well-being services)

John R. Finnegan Jr.
Dean and Professor
School of Public Health

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