Black History Month: Resistance, Accountability, and Progress
As we begin Black History Month, we are both encouraged to celebrate and challenged to understand the essential role that Black Americans play in U.S. History. While this time is devoted to recognizing the experiences and successes of Black Americans, it is also a chance for government to take accountability for the role that it has played in the historical disenfranchisement of Black Americans. These commemorative practices play a role in the collective healing of marginalized communities. Further, such should emphasize that real progress toward racial healing has been slow, and equity is not shared by all Americans.
Patients of color are continually faced with barriers that limit access to adequate healthcare, particularly mental health care, which further perpetuates racial health disparities. These trends are further accentuated by legislation that restricts access to certain forms of treatment. At the onset of the pandemic, we watched as Black Americans died at disproportionate rates and vaccine hesitancy plagued communities of color. Black Americans’ emotional response as it dealt with uncertainty and grief from the pandemic was further exacerbated by a charged socio-political climate due to the police brutality experienced by George Floyd.
Police violence was one of the driving forces that led me to pursue forensic psychiatry as a profession. As a child, our neighbor was a prominent DJ working at a radio station that catered to Black Americans in Beaumont, Texas. His outspoken political resistance led him to be brutally beaten by the local police, to the extent that he was left paralyzed. Almost 50 years later, we continue to see the deep-rooted effects of systemic and structural racism not only as it pertains to healthcare, but also how it permeates nearly every aspect of American life, including access to education, wealth, human rights, and justice.
The direct and indirect effects of structural racism include chronic stress, depression, and racial trauma. An investment of both time and money needs to be dedicated to creating resources, policies, and legislation that ensures the success and well-being of all Americans. This process must begin with understanding the intricate ways that the past influences the present, a consequence of a history founded on the economic power of slavery.
As our country becomes increasingly more politically polarized, notable gains of historical progress (such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act) are being met with often hostile opposition. This past week, the Florida governor moved to block a new Advanced Placement African American Studies course from Florida high schools. This action represented an aspect of his administration’s continued efforts to limit the way schools/educators can discuss the history of Race in America.
In the United States, power and influence can have devastating effects when abused to the detriment of others. By critically analyzing the historical roots of oppressive regimes, we can use what we learn to draw parallels between modern practices in hopes of working to prevent the re-creation of such negative history and continue the path to improvement.
The theme of this year's Black History Month is “Black Resistance,” serving as a reminder that these attempts to diminish Black History will be met with resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the ideal form this resistance can take. Rather than lower himself to the ideology of violence and blind rage, he instead chose to meet hate with love and division with a message of unity. We should all follow his example. In his sermon “Love your Enemies,” Dr. King famously proclaimed “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The best way to resist hate is to outshine it with love.
The recognition of Black History month is not only a respectful acknowledgment of African American history, it also is a celebration of this rich area of American history. Great individuals such as Dr. King prevailed despite a long and enduring history of discrimination and oppression. America is made rich by Black culture, creativity, innovation, and documented history, such deserves to be showcased and celebrated with pride. Let this Black History Month, and every day after, be a time for resistance, accountability, and progress.