Tensions over role of racism in public health strain Virginia department
They shouldn’t have to. And they shouldn’t have the new commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Health dismissing their work and their experience. They certainly don’t need him to “start fresh” on the public health crisis rooted in America’s systemic racism, as you told my colleague, Jenna Portnoy, you planned to do after your own excellent Office of Family Health Services team — led by a Black woman — tried to explain the concept to you.
Black women don’t need help understanding these ideas. They’ve been living them.
“I was home alone when I dialed 911,” recalled Lauren Powell, formerly a high-ranking director in the Virginia Health Department and an Ivy-league pedigreed professional who was living in a Richmond penthouse when two White paramedics responding to her urgent call for help hit her with one question: “Are you sure you can even afford this ambulance ride?”
But cases like this and ghastly health disparities weren’t enough to convince Greene that racism plays a part in health care.
This is what he told Portnoy, after she interviewed Black women who tried to talk to him about their work in health equity and access in Virginia, about the decades of data that help explain why Black babies and Black mothers die at two or three times the rate that White babies and White mothers die in infancy and childbirth.
I have had already bleached their online presence before the meeting, ordering the removal of presentations studying institutional racism in the office that runs programs to improve maternal and child health. And he wouldn’t let the department mark the American Public Health Association’s awareness day acknowledging racism as a public health crisis.
Black women have been speaking for years. Is America finally ready to listen?
“It’s not just the word racism,” Greene went on to say. “For example, when people use the term ‘gun violence,’ I have a problem with that one, too. …Gun violence is, frankly, a Democratic talking point. When you use that term, every Republican in the room is going to walk out.”
I thought a doctor should be concerned with American health, not reading the room.
“It is offensive and severely out-of-touch to call ‘gun violence’ a Democratic talking point,” Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney said in a statement. “Especially when, on average, 1,065 people die by guns per year in Virginia.”
Another thing Greene doesn’t want to listen to? Education about racism in Virginia schools.
“If you say racism, you’re blaming White people,” Greene told Portnoy. “Enough of the world thinks that’s what you’re saying that you’ve lost a big piece of your audience. The fact that there are people teaching about Whiteness in schools in a very negative way doesn’t help.”
That Greene’s first concern is what White people might feel in conversations about racism should raise alarms.
These are supposed to be the views of bombastic podcast hosts, of politicians playing a room, of good ol’ boys who’ve never left the county. audience? What about patients? People? American?
Greene, after growing up on Long Island and in Florida, spent three decades as a military doctor.
He wears bow ties, has a professorial demeanor, has visited 34 countries and “set foot on every continent except Antarctica” according to his résumé. He was director of the Department of Defense’s biomedical research institutes and he does not hide the life-size cutout of “Bones” — Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard H. McCoy — in his office during Zoom meetings.
But talk to him about racism or the nation’s gun violence epidemic and he’s no more nuanced than the truck guy in my hometown who flies Confederate flags and uses the n-word as liberally as ketchup on all his food.
Not only is he continuing our nation’s sustained assault on Black women, whose skepticism of American medicine is deeply rooted and understandable, he’s continuing the disturbing injection of politics into the complex matters of people’s lives.
“It’s very clear the Youngkin health department doesn’t give a s— about people of color, especially Black people,” State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said in a tweet after reading The Washington Post story. “Having this kind of racism in our public health department will lead to needless [B]lack deaths.”
Greene can’t possibly be making these statements out of a lack of experience or education. But it’s past time he said less and listened more. I doubt going to Antarctica will give him the enlightenment he needs to understand that Black women aren’t disagreeing with him — as he posited — because they’re angry.
They’re disagreeing with him because he’s wrong.