Miller School Panel Discusses Diversity and the Need to Confront Racism

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Although the United States has made some strides to combat racism, the University of Miami’s medical community committed itself to working even more intentionally to stamp out bias and the unfortunate health care disparities that continue to persist in a frank discussion Wednesday with some of the University’s top leaders and civil rights experts.

With the tragedy of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s death and the disproportionate numbers of African Americans dying from COVID-19 fresh in their minds, Henri Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean of the Miller School of Medicine, hosted a virtual panel discussion with more than 325 participants about how the Miller School can work to create a more inclusive atmosphere for Black students, faculty and staff, and for Black and brown patients in health care settings.

Panelists, clockwise from left: Miller School Dean Henri Ford; Circuit Court Judge Ellen Sue Venzer; civil rights attorney H.T. Smith; Hilarie Bass, chair of the University's Board of Trustees; and Donald Spivey, distinguished professor of history and special advisor on racial justice.

“The singular focus of the Miller School of Medicine is to become one of the preeminent research medical schools and academic health systems in the country, if not the world, but if UM is to live up to its goal, we must also confront and denounce racism and uproot it,” Dean Ford said. “We must recognize that the problem of racism is multifaceted in nature and reflects a fundamental lack of diversity, especially in terms of Black students, fellows, residents, and faculty.”

In July, Dean Ford convened the Task Force to Champion Racial Justice, which is working to change the culture at the Medical Campus to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for Black students, faculty, staff, and patients. The task force includes seven subcommittees working to encourage racial justice policies in admissions, student affairs, residents and fellows, curriculum, faculty, research, and community engagement. Their suggestions will be presented to the Miller School in October.

The panel discussion featured experts from the University community with a nuanced knowledge of the racial divisions in society. Judge Ellen Sue Venzer, a University alumnus and Circuit Court judge in the Criminal Division for the past 25 years, moderated the conversation. Venzer said she has had a front row seat to the racial issues “that plague our justice system,” and listed some sobering statistics. For example, she said, in Florida, Blacks represent 16 percent of the population, but 40 percent of the state’s death row inmates. In addition, Black children in Florida are five times as likely to be stopped by police as white juveniles, and three times as likely to be arrested. Also, Black children are six times more likely to have a parent in prison than a white child.

“The overwhelming majority of defendants in my box are Black and brown,” she said.

Meanwhile, Venzer said 65 percent of judges nationwide believe that the justice system is racist. That shows, she said, that 35 percent of judges “are under some misguided perception that our justice system is fair to Black and brown people.”

Speaking to medical students about the health care disparities which continue to persist, Venzer said: “Systemic racism exists in my system just as it does in yours, and left unchecked, both have dire consequences.”

Also participating was history professor Donald Spivey, who was recently appointed Special Advisor to the President on Racial Justice. Spivey explained that the notion of racism can be traced back to American slave owners who then formalized it in the Constitution’s three-fifths clause.

“For Black folks born in the United States of America, this nation told you from the very beginning that it did not see you as a human being,” Spivey said. “And for the next 200 years, Blacks were counted as three-fifths of a person. That's the way blacks have seen it."

Although major inroads were made by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Spivey said, many stumbling blocks remain for Blacks to succeed due to the legacy of the country’s self-imposed racism.

“The Black male is to this day the most feared image in America,” he said, adding that while watching protests against police brutality recently he saw a poignant sign held by a young Black man that said, “I am always armed and dangerous because of my color.”

“Subcommittees,” Spivey said, “you have to help us work beyond this. We must work to change this perception.”

Panelist Hilarie Bass, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, has studied diversity extensively and explained the concept of implicit bias during the conversation. This is the concept that even though people do not think they are racist, their experiences and beliefs cloud over their judgment in subconscious ways.

“Most of us think we are not racist; however, our brains have been bombarded with millions of images every moment of our lives and those images are stored in such a way that when you see a 250-pound bald man wearing a wife beater shirt on a Harley, before you exchange one word with him, you have already in your brain made assumptions about his religion, his IQ, his vocation, who his parents are, and so on,” said Bass, who recently founded the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion to empower women in the workplace.

“So, when you see a Black or brown person walking around your campus at night, is your first thought ‘oh, that’s probably a resident or a med student,’ or is it more likely that you think that person doesn’t really belong here? It’s that kind of implicit bias that we all have that makes it so difficult to address this problem.”

Despite the challenge, Bass said the University is fortunate to have President Julio Frenk and Dean Ford, who are both committed to changing these perceptions. She is also creating a committee on the Board of Trustees to partner with the task force and carefully consider any recommendations made in the past and the future about prioritizing diversity on campus.

“Hopefully, we’ll be in a position in short order to really ensure that the University of Miami is providing the opportunities for Black and brown students, faculty, and our community at large to have the opportunities that they truly deserve,” she said.

Also due to implicit bias and many hurdles that African Americans face in America, most of the panelists urged the task force to consider setting quotas for Black faculty members at the medical school, so that there is a guarantee that future students will be exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. When teaching an African American history class, Spivey said, he is often thanked at the end of the semester by his mostly white students, and students regularly say that he was their first Black professor, or their first Black teacher ever.

“Diversity benefits all of us, not just the Blacks who are there,” he said. “It may benefit whites even more at a predominantly white university because this is an increasingly diverse world we are in, and they need to be exposed to the multicultural world that exists.”

Panelist H.T. Smith, a renowned local civil rights attorney and Board of Trustees member who was part of the University’s first class of Black law students, urged medical students to commit themselves to the fight against racism. Invoking the advice of John Lewis, the Georgia senator who passed away recently, Smith urged medical students to never ignore injustice, and to speak up.

“I’ll bet my Bar card that one of you on the call right now has had a patient that said, ‘I don’t want this Black nurse or Black doctor.’ The question for you is, did you speak up? Did you do something about it?” Smith said. “It’s time to pick sides, either you are an anti-racist or you are on the side of racism.”

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