May 31st, 2020

America the Not So Beautiful Right Now, with a Must-Read Book Suggestion

Louisville, 1943 (Library of Congress)

Have you read W. Kamau Bell’s The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell:  Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian?

If you haven’t, may I suggest you put it at the top of your list, and pronto? In addition to being funny, moving, and thought-provoking, it’s one of the most influential books I’ve read in the past decade — and could not be more relevant now.

And by influential, I mean influential to me — a white guy living in the United States, and therefore generally oblivious to the terrifying racism blacks experience here on a regular basis.

So probably influential to anyone who hasn’t experienced what he describes in this brilliant book. It acts as a great antidote to our complacent cluelessness.

There’s a chapter I’ve thought about so many times since, especially this week. It’s called, “Awkward Thoughts about Being a Black Male, Six Foot Four Inches Tall in America”.

Here’s how the chapter starts — apologies for the lengthy quote, please read to the end:

I am afraid of the cops. Absolutely petrified of the cops. Now understand, I’ve never been arrested or held for questioning. I’ve never been told that I “fit the description.” But that doesn’t change a thing. I am afraid of cops the way that spiders are afraid of boots. You’re walking along, minding your own business, and SQUISH! You’re dead. Simply put, I am afraid of the cops because I am Black. To raise the stakes even further, I am male. And to go all in on this pot of fear, I am six foot four and weigh 250 pounds . . . at least. (I stopped keeping track, which is the next best thing to actually working out.) Michael Brown, the unarmed Ferguson, Missouri, eighteen-year-old shot dead by police in the summer of 2014 , was also six foot four. Eric Garner, who was strangled to death by the NYPD, was six foot three. Depending on your perspective, I could be described as a “gentle giant,” the way that teachers described Brown and the way that friends described Eric Garner. Or I could be described as a “demon,” the way that Officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown in his grand jury testimony. And just like Eric Garner, I have asthma, so when I hear him say on video, “I can’t breathe,” as the officer chokes the life out of him for selling loose cigarettes, I can feel it in my chest as I’m sure he did.

Oh that last sentence — so chilling. Written in 2017, in case you were wondering.

Some readers might wonder why I’m covering this topic today here on an ID blog. Some might suggest I stick to medical topics, say they don’t come here for this kind of commentary, accuse me of “virtue signaling”.

To them I say — feel free not to read this. No one’s forcing you.

And imagine if I didn’t comment. So much worse — unbearably so, at least for me. Our country’s history of racism is so long and painful the problem will only improve if we all fight it together.

Meanwhile, if you can’t stand a post without ID, how about this from super ID fellow Dr. Aaron Richterman, commenting on the staggeringly disproportionate toll COVID-19 has taken on people of color?

Highly relevant.

24 Responses to “America the Not So Beautiful Right Now, with a Must-Read Book Suggestion”

  1. Carrie says:

    Thanks for speaking out, Paul.

  2. Dr Srinivasan Ramesh says:

    Dear Dr Sax I congragulate you on your courage in writing about Racism in the US.I feel it is a global
    phenomenon of discrimination against the poorer sections of society .The interplay of social issues ,access to medical care and financial considerations makes the practise of medicine challenging.The role of religion ,caste,class and social status have to be added to an overflowing cauldron of issues.It
    is easy to reminesce of the good old days when all the doctor was responsible was competent care but the reality was often forgotten ,sidelined and brushed under the carpet.We have to send iit to the cleaners

  3. Zainab O says:

    Thanks for commenting. We too need to stand up for our patients just like you!

  4. Loretta S says:

    One of the saddest things anyone has said to me recently came from an African American student of mine. She said she was planning to not have children, because she did not know how to keep any sons she might have from being killed because of their skin color. She said this before the senseless death of George Floyd. I’d imagine she has only had that plan reinforced after recent events.

  5. Andrea Demeter says:

    Thank you.

  6. Michael Mullarkey says:

    Thank you, Dr. Sax, for speaking out on this chronic and very serious disease.

  7. Rupali says:

    Thank Dr.Sax. We all have a responsibility to speak up. Thank you for using your forum to do so.

  8. Sabra Custer says:

    Thank you Dr. Sax. I always learn from your posts and now will add another book to my overflowing reading list.

  9. Johnathon Ross MD MPH says:

    Racism IS an infectious disease.

  10. Leonard Sowah says:

    I am black and I can still relate to your concern that people will tell you to stick t medical issues. I belong a all black physician group and had previously posted issues that other may consider political like problems related to Central American Refugees on our southern border or my country of birth deciding to spend millions on dollars on a national cathedral when schools are running a shift system for lack of adequate space. Some of my concerned medical colleagues insist these are not medical issues, I would counter that they are public health related. In my short time in this country I have learned one very important lesson, oppressed poorly educated people will always have poorer health so all those issues are health concerns. I would not remind my medical colleagues of their advice for me to stay in my medical lane, I hope though that they will learn that health does not alway fall in the domain of us healthcare workers.

  11. Ashraf Khan says:

    I read your blogs each time. Before I read this today, I somehow suspected you’d be talking about racism in America. If you’re an intelligent and caring person, you can’t ignore a significant cause of death in humans – at the hands of white racist cops.

  12. Lorenza Dezanet says:

    Thank you for your comments Dr. Sax. It’s really good that you spoke up.

  13. Brenda Crabtree-Ramirez says:

    Thank you so much Paul for speaking out. This is so important…. Racism is a public health emergency!

  14. Sonali Kulkarni says:

    Thank you Dr. Sax. Agree with other comments that we have an obligation based on our position in society as physicians to name racism and recognize its detrimental effects on patients’ health and outcomes.

  15. Iván Gniraldo says:

    Es oportuno y pertinente su comentario. Gracias.

  16. Lisa Greisman says:

    Thank you for speaking out Dr. Sax – I am getting this book ASAP.

  17. Loretta S says:

    This recent article by ProPublica is astounding and horrifying. But it is so timely and it’s something we can point to when someone insists that racism does not play a part in the diseases that African Americans are more vulnerable to (i.e., that the vulnerability is all about genetics and “lifestyle choices”):

  18. Big Julie says:

    Surely part of the problem is the manner in which police treat ALL people? What makes them so rabid? Is it the uniform and the gun/taser? Is it frustration with the courts dishing out limp punishments or is there a faulty mechanism for accepting recruits to the force? Why are folk handcuffed behind their backs rather than in front? Why are police always determined to issue a fine rather than the old-fashioned warning? Is the military model for policing part of the problem?

  19. Emilio says:

    Dear Paul. thank you for this chapter. Really scary and shameful. America needs to stand once and for all and make it clear. Racism is not acceptable. Thanks

  20. Jody Gilmore says:

    Thanks Paul. Important to be the voice of those silenced for so long.

  21. Eileen Blackburn says:

    Thanks, Dr. Sax.
    I cannot understand why it took so long, but I am happy that at last, good people like you, are speaking out and standing up for otherhuman beings who seem to be unheard, who have no voice.
    I hope this time is the last time, and from now on everybody is treated as equal in your country.
    I would love to read the book you suggest, I think it will be hard to get it over here.
    Best regards, from Valdivia, Chile.

  22. Wayne says:

    As a black physician in corporate America where the silence of my colleagues is deafening, your boldness and courage are refreshing. I commend you and admire you for taking a public stand. We need more white people like yourself to stand up and speak out. In this country implicit bias and racism are entrenched and systemic and progress has required the active participation of white people.

  23. Michelle Nemer says:

    Amen Amen Amen to your post, and all comments above. All our best from Cleveland

  24. Manasa Velagapudi says:

    Thank You Dr.Paul for your honest comments addressing racism .

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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