Which crises warrant swift responses?
Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Protecting American Communities Task Force, which will coordinate law enforcement to protect historic monuments and statues. The announcement follows President Trump’s June 26th Executive Order to protect these same monuments from destruction during ongoing protests for racial justice and national accountability.
The Executive Order and special task force, alone, are contentious, inciting conflict between those wanting to preserve our nation’s proud history and those wanting modern America to also remember its darker, bloodier times. More contentious is the swiftness of this response to a crisis involving historical artifacts and property, compared to the swiftness of our country’s response to crises involving human lives.
Last week, I wrote about the global Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death, including my personal reflections on watching this unfold during COVID-19 where racially disparate health outcomes are apparent. I clarified the difference between interpersonal colorism and systems that are built to advantage white people at the expense of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. These distinctions allow us to recognize that racism is both hate speech and the normalization of white as the default, superior race. Importantly, I called racism a public health crisis; one that has lacked the same state or federal response, risk communication, funding, and resource allocation as COVID-19 despite its longstanding impacts on Communities of Color. And while I recognize that a novel respiratory virus puts more acute pressure on health systems, it is as urgent as addressing racism in those health systems.
In this week’s reflection, I’ll discuss the conditions and beliefs we deem more important than others and how they influence complacency, action, and even hierarchical responses to chronic racism, pandemics, or urgent threats to patriotism.
During my background reading for this editorial, I read two letters to the editor written by veterinarians in defense of the veterinary profession. One disagrees with the use of “the whitest profession in America” to describe the lack of diversity in veterinary medicine. The writer explains that the phrase devalues the generations of hard work and dedication that have shaped the profession into the respectable, competitive field it is today. He also warns that such phrasing implies that veterinary medicine is intentionally discriminatory and suggests that it alienates white veterinarians who support diversity initiatives.
The second letter offers justification for the lack of diversity within a midwestern veterinary college, citing the fact that state-supported veterinary colleges reserve many of their admissions slots for in-state students. In this particular state, many students come from rural areas with low population diversity, whereas underrepresented races are more likely to live in metropolitan areas. He further argues that regardless of the racial makeup of the applicant pool, colleges must select the most qualified candidates, regardless of race or other factors.
The normalization of white supremacy makes internal biases difficult to recognize, especially when we are socialized to believe that hard work, dedication, and personal decisions are the only drivers and measures of success. Thus, reacting defensively is natural, especially when someone presents a new perspective on the ideals and social guidelines some of us have been taught to value pridefully. But setting aside defensiveness and opening ourselves up to understanding someone else’s perspective invites room for parallels.
Yes, all lives matter, and we need to specifically remember that Black Lives Matter because they are too often undervalued.
Yes, preserving historical artifacts is important, and it is essential to understand that national heroes also laid the foundation of slavery and colonialism in this country that underlie our health systems and policies.
Yes, I have worked hard to overcome individual adversity, and my white privilege has made it easier for me to earn my qualifications compared to my Black, Indigenous, and Colleagues of Color.
Yes, the veterinary profession consists of hardworking and compassionate people who support diversity, and 92.8% of veterinarians are white, making it one of the whitest professions in the country.
Yes, veterinary colleges should accept the most qualified candidates to advance the profession, and they should put in the work to understand the inequitable opportunities in achieving those qualifications to begin with.
When oppressed peoples bring awareness to the oppression they have experienced, reacting with an openness to learn is more productive than denial or justification. Veterinarians are critical thinkers and problem solvers. We are compassionate communicators who believe in evidence-based science. And we value continuing education which enables us to provide the most up to date standard of care in the continually evolving field of medicine. Can we address the profession’s lack of diversity and achievement barriers using these same values and professional traits? Can we channel our heightened awareness into thoughtful allyship that upholds our oath to benefit society, advance medical knowledge, and practice conscientiously? Can we leverage this new understanding to enrich and advance the profession?
Sustained allyship begins with reassessing our individual and professional priorities. It involves acknowledging where our internal biases ask others to lean in. When colleagues react defensively, they re-prioritize exclusion and place value on existing norms.
Using the example mentioned earlier, justifying a veterinary college’s lack of diversity by explaining that racial diversity is more common in metropolitan areas does two things. First, it assumes that those in metropolitan areas are not interested in rural careers. Second, it gives admissions a pass on doing the work to recruit diverse candidates that represent the profession instead of the state’s population. Additionally, defaulting to the notion that veterinary colleges should only accept the most qualified candidates perpetuates microaggressions and all forms of racism; in other words, it favors those who have the financial resources, early education, and social support that enable the achievement of those qualifications. And when it favors people who are predominantly white, it reinforces the idea that a career like this one is unattainable and unwelcoming to those who are not.
The Association of American Veterinary Colleges hosts a podcast series on diversity and inclusion. In a recent episode, Drs. Cara Williams (Co-founder, Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association), Tyra Davis (Charter Vice President, National Association for Black Veterinarians), Tierra Price (Founder, Black DVM Network), and Michael Blackwell (Director, Program for Pet Health Equity) discuss forms of meaningful allyship.
These include diversity and inclusion committees, financially investing in assessing whether the objectives outlined in diversity and inclusion statements are met, empowering Black colleagues, normalizing Black veterinarians, hiring Black veterinarians into leadership positions, and reporting and tracking racial discrimination. Dr. Blackwell says that “veterinarians are not known to get involved in social issues,” and that “allyship is about the structural and systemic problems that lead to the inability to get an education.”