Message From President Dunn on Racism and Systemic Inequality in America
Date: Sunday, May 31, 2020Author:Sharon Dunn, PT, PhD
Tomorrow night, I will address APTA’s House of Delegates for the fifth time as APTA’s president.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the House is being conducted virtually this year, so a few weeks ago I recorded my address from the media center at LSU Health-Shreveport. As you’ll see when we post the address widely tomorrow night, my address touches on the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus, about its effect on our profession, and about our need to act.
What it doesn’t touch on, given when I recorded it, is what’s top of mind for so many of us right now — the death of George Floyd and the unrest that has followed as Americans have responded to what’s only the latest act of unnecessary violence and intimidation against a person of color in this country.
George Floyd’s death was horrific and entirely preventable. Because it was captured on video it has forced us, yet again, to confront the deeply seated racism in this country that many of us — mainly those like me with the privilege of whiteness — have spent too long complacently believing was largely a relic of our past. Yesterday as Americans celebrated the launch of humans into space while protests filled our streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what decade we’re in. For all the progress we’ve made as a society, we have an inexcusably long way to go, and we must make progress faster.
Fixing racism in America is an American problem. We cannot pretend to live our country’s values while racism persists, and it is our duty as citizens to address the gap between what we say we stand for and what (and who) we will stand up for.
And what of our physical therapy community?
In my 2018 presidential address, in which I quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and told the story of trailblazing APTA member Lynda Woodruff, PT, PhD, I said, “Our vision charges us not to stand at a distance and point our fingers at our nation’s ills but instead to accept a personal responsibility to try to make a difference.”
If simply speaking about the problem solved the problem, we would already have solved this. Sadly, this is not a new conversation.
Our positions — established by our members — are clear. As PTs and PTAs we respect the inherent dignity and rights of all individuals. We are against discrimination. We are for addressing health disparities.
What’s left to us — to all of us in our community — is to live those values through action.
That means finding ways to address social determinants of health, which include discrimination. That means making strategic investments to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. That means, as I said in 2018, listening and learning and doing whatever it takes to ensure that as a profession and association “no one feels like an outsider anywhere within our bounds.”
Saturday, APTA’s Board of Directors chipped away at this massive challenge. Addressing a topic that had been on our agenda for months, Greg Hicks, PT, PhD, FAPTA, guided the Board in developing recommendations we will bring to CAPTE later this year to improve diversity in our PT and PTA education programs. Those are essential steps we must take, because our mission and vision compel us to address the systemic issues in our own physical therapy community first and foremost.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King wrote in his famous letter. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The unrest in our country is a response to more than George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, or the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities. It is a response to generations of death, despair, fear, and suffering.
PTs and PTAs cannot solve those problems alone, but, make no mistake, this crisis is at our front door. In mid-March, physical therapy visits declined as people stayed indoors to protect themselves from a dangerous external force — COVID-19. We must accept that a similar devastating force — systemic inequality for racial and ethnic minorities — keeps many people from receiving our services every day.
There is nothing healthy about racism. It’s a disease of the heart and mind that has infected not just people but customs, systems, and laws. There is no vaccine. We must be the cure.