From birth, I was clothed in a privilege that would open doors for me that minorities and women would have to work much harder to even crack. While I worked hard and excelled as a healthcare executive—now serving as CEO of St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare—it would only be later in life when I would recognize the patterns and injustices of structural racism and the inherent privilege in being born white and male.
Growing up in Alexandria, Va., in the ’60s and ’70s, my childhood was marked by the civil rights movement, riots in my Washington, D.C., hometown, and the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
Before he died, my father encouraged me to pursue a career in hospital administration. The summer before my senior year, my older brother helped open a door for me at a hospital in Flint, Mich. That experience led to my attending the University of Michigan for graduate school in public health and business. It was my public health education that introduced me to what are today known as the social determinants of health and health inequities.
The situations at Duke University Hospital, where I started my work following graduation, and at Durham Regional Hospital, where I would later work, were like a tale of two cities, albeit in the same town. Durham Regional was created when a white hospital and a black hospital merged in 1976 to form the town’s public, community hospital. I became its president in 1998. Because of the history, race was always a factor in every action. Upon reflection it taught me a lesson I would later be able to name: the Platinum Rule, which was to treat others the way they would like to be treated. And it taught me the value of inclusion and diversity.
Today, I live in St. Louis with my wife and daughter. St. Louis is still challenged by decades of segregation, structural racism and pockets of socio-economic despair that exacerbate health disparities between races. The shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in 2014 exposed how volatile race relations were in St. Louis, pointing a magnifying glass on the root causes. Sadly, six years later, we have made little progress in improving the quality of life for those most at risk in our community.
In late May, we all saw the video showing the tragic, inhumane death of George Floyd. The death of a black man at the hands of a white man in a position of power. A senseless death that followed so many others—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and so many more.
Their deaths make clear what role I must play as someone who entered this world with a privilege based on my race and sex, and now as a healthcare CEO. With privilege comes enormous responsibility.
The tragic events the last week of May, the 100,000-plus COVID-19 deaths, and the continued healthcare and racial disparities in our nation highlight the stark realities of our public health crisis. This crisis is not the result of COVID-19, poverty, gun violence or underfunding of our public health system. I firmly believe it is the result of structural, institutionalized racism in America that privileged white men have perpetuated for far too long.
I cannot deny my privilege, but I can stand up, step forward and call out these injustices that people who look like me have ignored, supported or promoted. And I will do just that every day. I call on my white friends and colleagues to do the same.
Let’s use the unearned privilege of birth for the benefit of all.
If you cannot, then step aside, sit down, and get out of the way.