I am deeply troubled and disturbed about the collapse of civility on conversations of race and social justice in our country, but I am not confused. The continued spate of police shootings of unarmed African-American men and the tragic shooting deaths of five Dallas policemen leave us wondering whether Black and White America can ever relate to each other in a civil, empathic manner.
I am not confused, but I used to be. Growing up in South Memphis, Tennessee in the 1960s, I developed a friendship with Shirley, the daughter of Chinese-American immigrants who operated a food market in my neighborhood. Shirley and I had a bond; we were both socially awkward children with big glasses and a fondness for math.
Our lives were irrevocably altered after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. After Dr. King’s death, the word on the street was that black radicals were planning to bomb non-black businesses in the African-American community. True enough; within days, my community was in flames.
Shirley’s store, where she and her family worked and lived, was just a charred shell. I was 10 years old, and not fully capable of processing my feelings of confusion, sadness and helplessness, so I blocked the whole scene out of mind and would not revisit it until very recently.
My faith in social justice took a cruel path in September 1981 in St. Louis. I was a second-year medical student at Washington University School of Medicine, walking back to my apartment in the Central West End after class, when I was suddenly surrounded by squad cars, with policemen screaming at me to drop my backpack and hold my arms up.
Apparently, an African-American male had just robbed a store and I fit the profile (though I was wearing a tweed jacket, button-down shirt and bowtie). When I was violently slammed onto the hood of a police car, I experienced an emotion that was quite alien to me, even after growing up in the inner city of Memphis – fear. I truly felt I could have been killed and no one would be there to refute the police narrative.
After being handcuffed for what seemed like an hour, I was finally released after a white medical school classmate, Mark Cooper, saw what was happening and ran over to vouch for me. I was left feeling numb, dehumanized and violated.
I am now a professor and kidney specialist at Washington University; however, my relationship with the police has been fundamentally altered. I respect the job they do, but still harbor a lingering distrust.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and countless other unarmed African-American males have been killed by the police. I could have easily been on that list. Black lives matter.
However, our collective pain and anger do not give us license to strike back in a vengeful, self-righteous manner. We must take the moral high ground and bridge the racial and social divide in America by engaging in meaningful dialogue, in which we candidly discuss our thoughts and recognize our implicit biases. We must do so in a way that builds the allies we sorely need as we endeavor to promote social justice.
Yes, the criminal justice system is in serious need of reform, but those who have labored to bring the injustices to light must not be overshadowed by visceral calls to violence. This country must treat all its citizens with the dignity, respect and protection they deserve. All Americans rightfully demand that treatment, and should march, protest, occupy and engage in civil disobedience until such rights are restored.
What we are experiencing is an American problem; we are in dire need of civility to move us to resolution. Please join me as we help our nation heal.
Will Ross, MD, MPH, is associate dean for Diversity at the Washington University School of Medicine