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The role of race in the pursuit of health and happiness

Waveney Ann Moore

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It’s the ubiquitous pandemic-era pronouncement: “We’re all in this together.” But are we?

Just think, wearing a mask, which should be embraced as a public health concern in a country that has lost at least 217,000 souls – more than 15,000 in Florida – is being fought against in the political arena. 

Mask protestors continue to stubbornly assert their right to individual freedom. But while American individualism has been admired and envied throughout the world, can it be taken too far, devolving into selfishness and self-destruction?

I’m reading Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. It’s a thought-provoking book by physician and sociologist Dr. Jonathan Metzl, who this week spoke at a webinar presented by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. 

In his book, Metzl, who is white, tells the story of “Trevor,” 41, from Tennessee. Metzl met him in early 2016, when Tennessee was in the throes of a raging debate about the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. 

At the time, Trevor, a white, former cab driver living in low-income housing, was seriously ill with an inflamed liver. He was uninsured, but supported his elected officials’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it … I would rather die,” he told Metzl. “We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”

It was not, Metzl indicates, an unusual attitude among white residents he encountered in his research, which spanned the South and Midwest, for his book that was published last year. He discovered that certain policies governing healthcare in places like Tennessee hurt not just minorities, but low- and middle-income whites as well. In Missouri, his research indicated that the state’s relaxed gun laws correlated with higher gun deaths by suicide of white men. And in Kansas – home of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case – cuts purported to prevent wasteful spending by minority school districts on such things as “party” buses resulted in higher dropout rates and flattening test scores for white students.

A Kansas State legislator observed, Metzl said, that “the fire that we set in the fields burned all the way up to the home.”

Metzl posited the thesis: “When politics demands that people resist available healthcare, amass arsenals, cut funding for schools that their own kids attend, make other decisions that might feel emotionally correct but are biologically perilous, these policies are literally asking people to die for their whiteness.”

He doesn’t hesitate to name the problem he believes is assailing the nation. “It’s really about race,” he told those who assembled virtually for his talk this week.

Such a realization might be a searing blow to those who were euphoric about the election – and reelection – of the nation’s first Black president and hopeful talk that arose about a post-racial America. It was an ideal shattered by those who were surreptitious in their disdain and others not so much. A well-known local doctor actually shared a racist image of President Obama as a witch doctor.

What now? Metzl’s presentation this week was part of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s “Speakers Who Inspire” series. Chief equity officer Carl Lavender explained that the series is designed “to motivate and inspire and educate … in the pathways of race equity.”

There is a growing effort to push at the rising animus against minorities and immigrants, a lot of it boosted by whites committed to equality. But are the soul-searching calls for diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations a fruitless maneuver in America’s tortuous struggle with race, a perennial tug-o-war in which the side with the most muscle or votes wins

Metzl sees his book as a wake-up call for the nation. He had hoped that the coronavirus pandemic would jolt Americans into collective action and is hoping it’s not too late. This week he reiterated facts already well documented about the pandemic, such as its disproportionate effect on minorities and vulnerable immigrants. 

He calls on fellow whites to surrender their winner-take-all attitude, to strive to collaborate rather than dominate and to find new ways of talking across the racial divide. We’re all connected, he says.

Admittedly, the pandemic has created a certain amount of togetherness, with people reaching out, trying to create peace amid dissension and ever conscious of the uncertainty of life.

When a segment of the population balks at wearing masks, dismisses the seriousness of the coronavirus and goes as far as to arrogantly summon it, one can’t help but wonder whether there’s anyone in their lives they cherish.

A few years ago, shortly after the last election, a relative had to travel to Florida for treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center. In waiting rooms, I couldn’t help but feel the shared fear, anxiety and hope of those seeking healing and that of the family and friends who had accompanied them. I doubt that many were thinking about race or politics. I certainly wasn’t. Yes, as it was then, we are all in this together. Why not just wear a mask?

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    Jesse Barton

    October 19, 2020 at 1:57 am

    Thanks for making this available to a wider audience. These are important thoughts. As a former resident of St Pete I follow a lot of what is happening there and find the articles and notes shared here are a good measure of the wider events in St Pete. Thank you. Jesse Barton

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