MLK Human Rights Week 2022: Transforming Ourselves and Others

Sena and I thought today’s Zoom presentation “Racial Perspectives on the Institution of Medicine” by Director and Chair of Emergency Medicine Jenice Baker, MD, from Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia was fascinating. It was an early feature of Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration of Human Rights week. This presentation stimulated a long discussion between us. The theme of this year’s MLK week is “Whatever Affects One Directly, Affects All Indirectly.”

Dr. Baker cautioned that some of the content of her talk would make us feel uncomfortable about the issue of racism in the social realm of our society extending to the medical realm as well. Sena and I were a little surprised about some of the historical facts, such as that white patients always had to be treated first before black people in emergency rooms, regardless of the severity and urgency of the trauma.

This led me to look up the term “implicit bias.” It doesn’t always denote racism per se. It does mean that we’re all prone to making broad generalizations. This accentuates the conflict between political parties, races, and other groups. People on both sides of the color line can overgeneralize, leading to stereotyping.

I told the following anecdote in a blog post from last year’s MLK Human Rights Week:

When I was a first-year resident on rotation in the inpatient psychiatric wards, one of the patients assigned to me roared at me “I don’t want no nigger doctor!” more than once. I discussed the issue with my supervisor. It was a difficult conversation. It was a long time ago and I recall mostly the sense that we both felt awkward. I asked that the patient, who clearly didn’t want anything to do with me, be transferred to the care of another resident. I don’t recall whether he offered to talk with the patient and he deferred on asking another trainee to take over the patient’s care. My recollection is dim about how I handled it. I suspect that’s because it was emotionally painful. Although I had to see him prior to rounds every day, I think I excused myself as soon as he spat the word “nigger” in my face—which was practically every day. I told him I didn’t’ have to tolerate that.

The flip side of this is a conversation I overheard in the distant past between my father (a black man) and his friend (also black, who I’ll call Mark). My father took Mark in, who had just been released from jail and was homeless. He was wearing poorly fitting clothes he probably found because he was penniless and jobless. While he paced the living room floor, he cursed and said angrily, “Man, I will never let this white man do this to me again.” My father just snorted in a way that made me think he didn’t believe that Mark was in his predicament because of any white man—it was probably Mark’s own bad decisions that led to his problems.

As in past years when Sena and I are intellectually stimulated by MLK Celebration of Human Rights week speeches, our discussions get long and spirited and tend to range widely over the spectrum and durability of human weakness, human evil, and the seemingly accidental nature of human wisdom and human kindness.

We talked at length about James Alan McPherson, long time Iowa City resident and nationally renowned writer, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for short fiction, and acting director of the Iowa City Writers Workshop. He died in in the summer of 2016. An Iowa City neighborhood park was recently renamed James Alan McPherson Park in his honor.

But judging from news stories, this didn’t happen until members of the Iowa Freedom Riders suggested that a park be named “Black Lives Matter Park” in the summer of 2020. In response, more than a dozen people recommended that Creekside Park be renamed in McPherson’s honor instead.

Was the suggestion of renaming the park after McPherson simply a maneuver to avoid naming a park after BLM—and possibly to avoid extremist consequences? Why did it take Iowa City so long to honor him after he died? It is puzzling given that his peers called him the heart and soul of the Iowa Writers Workshop and given that McPherson himself called Iowa a place where he felt welcome. He was even in psychotherapy delivered by a white psychiatrist, Dr. Dorothy “Jean” Arnold, the first female psychiatrist to open a private practice in the state of Iowa in 1957. They were both from the racially polarized South. I wonder how they ever connected.

Why should this matter so much to us? Just like Dr. Baker’s presentation, it’s a very uncomfortable discussion. Sena is very good at doing what MLK suggested in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where the quote “Whatever Affects One Directly, Affects All Indirectly” comes from—creating “constructive nonviolent tension.” King always advised against violence or anything other than nonviolent methods of protest, saying that what we need is to create a type of constructive nonviolent tension, which he proved can be more effective than violent confrontation.

Some extremists say that King’s nonviolent approach is no longer relevant for our times, but I doubt violence is the answer. Somehow all of us need to learn how to not just tolerate an atmosphere charged with constructive nonviolent tension—but to somehow transform ourselves directly and thereby transform others indirectly into peaceful agents of change.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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