On a summer day in July 2013, I vividly recall how I felt after learning that George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. I felt violated, angry and powerless. Like many other Black Americans, I watched the trial and eagerly anticipated a guilty verdict. It seemed like a no brainer, Zimmerman was going to prison. I knew a protest or some sort of social unrest was imminent after that shocking verdict was delivered that revealed Zimmerman would actually walk free. For this reason I was pleased, but still dissatisfied, when I started to see the explosion of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. When the protest moved beyond social media and to the streets, I became even more pleased. But, still I felt this growing sentiment in the pit of my stomach that even with the protesting on the streets and the popularity of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Black people were still being robbed (once again) of justice and dignity by this country, our country – America. In some way, despite our protesting in the streets we were still voiceless, or at least efforts were being orchestrated to minimize our voice. The spread of the hashtag #AllLivesMatter symbolized such an attempt. As the #BlackLivesMatter Movement grew in popularity, as evidenced by the fact that moderators asked politicians about #BlackLivesMatter during the 2016 United States presidential election debates or that additional Black bodies (Michael Brown and Eric Garner) were obliterated by aggressive policing, I appreciated that the conversation moved beyond the mere killing of Black people by police to also include speaking out against systemic racism against Black people that permeates countless levels of American life, including academia.
As a Black doctoral student and adjunct instructor to undergraduate students who attend City University of New York (CUNY) and New York University (NYU), I am frequently reminded of another hashtag #BlackScholarsMatter. Throughout much of my undergraduate and graduate studies in CUNY, I have observed the general shortage of Black professors on campus. While I have been spared some of psychological damage of not seeing faculty on campus who look like me, due to the educational background of my parents and the strong influence of pro-Black rhetoric in my upbringing, I have often mused about the consequences of the underrepresentation of Black scholars. From this context, I acknowledge that my role in the classroom extends beyond teaching. For many students, particularly underrepresented students of color attending a public university, my mere presence as a Black woman constitutes the idea that there is a place for them in higher education. Researchers in the fields of role modeling and mentoring would characterize my presence as a form of mentoring that provides “psychosocial help.” However, when I recall my own exposure to Black people working as professors and research scientists, for me, it was just a feeling of immense pride and self-actualization. Put another way, it was like, “yeah, Black people are representing up in here!!!” For this reason and many others, I have deliberately elected to focus my research on two areas that are important to me: 1) Strategies to address the shortage of Black faculty in higher education and 2) Strategies to increase the shortage of Black and Hispanics research scientists contributing to the fields of health disparities and health equity research. I firmly believe each of these research areas are critical for America.
Without discrediting the social, political, historical and economic forces that contribute to racial health disparities, the lack of racial diversity among scholars also contributes to the problem. Even though Blacks and Hispanics carry a disproportionate burden of health disparities, and we are projected to become the combined majority population, we are largely missing from the ranks of researchers investigating solutions for health equity. The glaring shortage is also evident in academic institutions that train direct care medical providers, social and behavioral scientists, public health professionals and policy makers. Given the long reach of research findings on policy development and best practices, particularly those related to upstream and downstream social determinants of health, the domain of the research scientist is arguably one of the most important areas where diversity is critical. The researcher’s questions, approaches, and interpretation of findings have the capacity to influence practice and policy recommendations that affect large portions of racially and culturally diverse Americans. Although White research scientists may produce important research questions and findings, a workforce of health disparities investigators that is not racially diverse is completely inappropriate.
First, the lack of diversity among health researchers produces studies and interventions from a single cultural and contextual perspective. When White researchers are examining circumstances that are largely lived by minorities, they are unlikely to reflect the experiences, perspectives, and cultural values of non-White populations. Diversity of ideas and experiences are important for health disparities research. Second, given that more Americans increasingly identify as a racial minority, it is inadequate that Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in the enterprise of health equity research. Third, many Black people have feelings of distrust about participation in healthcare research. The increased representation of Black and Hispanic research scientists may reduce feelings of distrust and encourage more minorities to participate in research studies. Further, minority researchers may have greater access to minority communities, and knowledge about cultural issues that influence healthcare utilization. Despite this, within the National Institute of Health (NIH), the principal federal agency and leading medical research center for health disparities, Blacks and Hispanics constitute only 5% of NIH-funded principal investigators. This is problematic and symptomatic of a larger issue.
When I read “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, I felt my initial exposure to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and my research interest about #BlackScholarsMatter intersected, although not perfectly. In several examples throughout her memoir, Khan-Cullors pulls the curtain back on America’s ugly practices like the double standards that exist for people who are not racial minorities. However, as I read her narrative, I was saddened but hardly surprised by her examples that illustrated America’s long history of oppressing some groups and privileging others. For example, her account of her young brothers being mishandled by the police and the silencing that occurred afterwards reminded me of the mishandling a Black bodies for scientific advancements during the slave era and more recently that have also been silenced. This notion of silencing also draws parallels when I consider the dearth of Black research scientists contributing to the field of health disparities research or to the general silencing of Black faculty and researchers who are not proportionally represented on colleges and universities across America. Despite attempts at silencing Black bodies, I marvel when I read about Khan-Cullors and countless others who have persisted, resisted and demanded their voice be heard, their presence acknowledged and their movement witnessed.