Selwyn Vickers 4 LRThe events set off by the death of George Floyd in recent weeks have generated long overdue introspection and conversations around systemic racism in communities across America. As we stand on the precipice of another potential turning point in our country’s long march toward true justice and equality, I have been thinking about what this all means for medicine, and academic medicine in particular.

In Alabama, we have a unique perspective on this moment, understanding from hard-won experience that, although there has been progress in addressing racism, there remain glaring and persistent inequities and perceptions of value between groups underlying almost every aspect of American life. The most seminal document highlighting these inequities is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because of its message that peaceful protest is essential to change and that all elements of our society must participate for lasting change to occur. It is, sadly, still as relevant to our present circumstances as it was when King wrote it.

That this latest incidence of police brutality occurred in Minneapolis magnifies that this is not a southern problem, a northern problem, an eastern problem, or a western problem—it’s a deeply rooted American problem. The attitude that perpetuates the use of excessive force against people of color by those who are sworn to protect them is very much connected to the sobering reality that our society values one race over others. That is paramount for us to understand as we try to move our country toward healing and honest reconciliation.

Academic medicine must recommit to the idea that every part of our society benefits when every part of our society is operating at its highest capacity—or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “When it’s better for everyone, it’s better for everyone.” Racial equality lifts the boat not only for minorities but also for the majority population. But to achieve this, we must first be highly intentional. When we have problems that have been inherently created by racial bias, we traditionally try to solve them in a color-blind fashion. The fact is, this is a huge misnomer. The reason we’re in this position is because people have not been color-blind. If we’re going to move forward, there has to be reaction and counteraction. We as a society have to commit to being intentional about confronting racism until being anti-racist becomes second nature.

Then we have to listen. Whether we are white or black, we have to be willing to try to understand the full pain that people who are vulnerable are experiencing. As we do that, we have a better chance at overcoming our biases and prejudices. To that end, the School of Medicine hosted a Forum for Racial Justice on Wednesday, June 10. The forum was an opportunity for the school to collectively address the racial inequities and injustices that have plagued our city and country through transparent dialogue and solution-based discussion.

Moderated by Evelyn Jones, executive director of Diversity and Inclusion in the School of Medicine’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the panel included me; Will Ferniany, Ph.D., CEO of UAB Health System; Mona Fouad, M.D., MPH, senior associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion; Keith (Tony) Jones, M.D., senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs in the School of Medicine and chief physician executive for UAB Medicine; Monica Baskin, Ph.D., professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine and vice chair for Culture and Diversity in the Department of Medicine; Seth Landefeld, M.D., chair of the Department of Medicine; Samantha Hill, M.D., MPH, instructor in the Division of Adolescent Medicine; and Carolyn Maddox, of the School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as staff representative.

The forum was meant to provide time for listening, create space for questions, and reaffirm our commitment to addressing issues related to race on the academic side of UAB Medicine. In addition, the School of Medicine has established an African-American Faculty Association under the leadership of Farah Lubin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and director of the NINDS Neuroscience Roadmap Scholar Program, and Danielle Powell, M.D., MSPH, interim chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. We hope this group will be our guide to the best way to connect with faculty around issues of diversity and racial equality.

These are just the first steps in what will be a very proactive process to listen to the School of Medicine community, gather information, and create and enact a tangible plan of action for addressing issues of racial inequality within the School of Medicine as well as in our greater community. I look forward to sharing those details as they materialize in the coming weeks and months.

As saddening as the events of recent weeks have been, they have also presented us with an historic opportunity to address racial injustices that have been tolerated for far too long. I hope you will join me and the School of Medicine in our renewed commitment to ending racial inequities, biases, and disparities not only in medicine and health care but across all aspects of our society.

Sincerely,

Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., FACS
Senior Vice President for Medicine
Dean, UAB School of Medicine
James C. Lee Jr. Endowed Chair
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Chair, The University of Alabama Health Services Foundation Board