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Dean Statement about the Recent Killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd

June 1, 2020

Dear VTCSOM Community,

The historic and cumulative impact of structural racism on black lives was punctuated recently by the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.  Their deaths were horrific, senseless and brutal.  I stand with my fellow citizens, physicians, educators and academic leaders in condemning these acts.  They are an affront to our values of inclusion, diversity, humanism, compassion, justice and respect.

The cruelty and inhumanity perpetrated against Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd remind me how little progress we have made as a society over the past 30 years.  I was a resident physician in Los Angeles in 1991 when Rodney King was brutally beaten on the streets of that city. The beating was caught on camera by a bystander and broadcast into homes across the nation and worldwide.  A year later the Los Angeles policemen involved in the beating were acquitted on charges of assault and the use excessive force, an injustice that triggered protests and violent riots.  Although the increase in senseless violence against unarmed African-Americans over the past 3 decades may seem to be an artifact of capturing more of these tragedies on camera, I fear we are still seeing only the tip of this iceberg.   

In our shared sense of dismay what can we do to be helpful?  Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr, Elie Wiesel, and Desmond Tutu have pointed out in their own unique ways that “neutrality” creates a deafening silence that supports continued oppression and torment.   It is each citizen’s duty to call out and acknowledge the real and continued inequities that limit life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for people of color. The statement released yesterday from Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Diversity Menah Pratt-Clarke does just that and points out, “As great as our ideals of freedom, justice, and equality may be, the reality is persistently and pervasively falling short of what we say we are all about.”

I celebrate the growth in diversity our society has experienced during the 6 decades of my life.  Inclusion of people’s diverse experiences, perspectives and thoughts is a defining feature and strength of America.  Diversity has been a driver of innovation and success, but the economic fruits of progress have not resolved racial inequalities and health disparities.  Over 20 years ago the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. David Satcher, pointed out the existence of “continuing disparities in the burden of illness and death experienced by blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders”  and predicted that “the future health of America as a whole will be influenced substantially by our success in improving the health of racial and ethnic minorities.”  COVID-19 reminds us that the institutional and structural factors that define race in our society have sustained these disparities, setting the stage for greater rates of illness and death in African-American families from the pandemic. Our community’s suffering, grief and anguish over the resulting loss of life is real and must be acknowledged, heard and supported.  

The compounding impact of long-term inequality, health disparities, the pandemic and the recent killings of unarmed citizens can create a heavy burden of stress, fear, outrage and trauma in communities of color, and yet may be hidden from the awareness of individuals who do not feel this impact.  I acknowledge the burden of repeated trauma carried across many generations in the African-American community.   I also acknowledge my privilege -- not to fear that an encounter with law enforcement or jog through the neighborhood could result in my death or that of my children.   I want to listen, understand, acknowledge and support members of our VTCSOM community who are fearful, worried, aggrieved and anguished.      

Please join me on Wednesday, June 3, from 5:30-7:00pm for a special “VTCSOM Community Forum: Finding Safety after the Killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd”.  An outlook invitation is forthcoming for this zoom forum.  Former VTCSOM faculty member, Dr. Frank Clark, will join us.  Before moving to the University of South Carolina at Greenville Dr. Clark practiced at Carilion in the department of psychiatry and was a member of the VTCSOM Dean’s Council on Advancement.  Dr. Clark is an emerging national leader whose work draws attention to the impact of racism and health inequities on the African-American community: https://www.nmqf.org/40-under-40-awardees/2019/clark.  The forum will create a safe space for sharing and listening, acknowledging and supporting each other – a place of compassion and understanding.    In preparation I hope you will have time to read this short and moving poem by Morgan Harper Nichols, a 30-year old artist and poet from California.

It is my sincerest hope that we can come together to help those who are suffering and in pain.  Thank you for your support!

Lee Learman, MD, PhD
Dean, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine