This year’s Black History Month theme is “Black Health and Wellness.” This seems particularly relevant as we cross the two-year mark in a global pandemic that has disproportionally impacted Black Americans.
We have officially celebrated Black History Month since 1976, when President Gerald Ford recognized it to honor the often-neglected accomplishments of Black Americans throughout American history. However, recognizing past contributions is only part of why we celebrate Black History Month. This year’s theme highlights the importance of not only acknowledging our true past but evaluating our present in order to improve the future health and wellness of Black Americans and, therefore, our country.
Historically, Black bodies have been exploited for the sake of scientific advancement. Beginning with the experimentation on enslaved Black men, women and children through the end of the Civil War, to Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were first used without her permission in 1951, to the Tuskgee trials that ran from 1932 to 1972 in which African American men who suffered from syphilis were promised—and then denied—treatment. Today, African Americans are underrepresented in clinical trials, in part due to this dark past. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, many talk about vaccine hesitancy and skepticism among Black Americans, but much less often talk about the reasoning behind it. The only way to improve outcomes for our patients and ourselves is to have a diverse group of decision makers who will consider these and other ideologies.
For years, Hopkins has made efforts to ensure our workforce accurately depicts the diversity of the populations we serve. In 2016, African Americans made up about 31 percent of the population of Maryland. In FY17, among all six Johns Hopkins Hospitals, African Americans made up about 29 percent of Johns Hopkins employees and 31 percent of patients. Representation is important in ensuring health and wellness not only because it is now widely accepted that patients do better with a provider of similar race or ethnicity, but because it can also improve mentor/mentee relationships and encourage a more diverse leadership. A diverse workforce is necessary in order for Hopkins to remain among the top hospitals, research universities and training programs in the country, especially in this era where social injustice is at the forefront and an employer’s values can weigh heavily on where sought-after individuals choose to work. Considering the Black persons make up almost two thirds of the population of Baltimore City, it is clear we still have work to do.
The next step is encouraging an environment where Black employees can succeed and flourish both now and in the future. The Hopkins Diaspora, created in August 2019, is an Employee Resource Group that operates within JHM’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity created to help foster an inclusive workplace. The group now has more than 370 members and has held workshops, free legal clinics and panel discussions for members of Hopkins and the surrounding communities. Within the DOM, we have the DOM Diversity Council, established in 2002 to promote increased recruitment, retention and advancement of faculty, fellows and residents from groups under-represented in medicine as well as to promote an inclusive environment across the department.
We hope you were able to take advantage of some of the Black History Month events happening across Hopkins. There is still time to register for a panel discussion and Q&A on COVID-19’s Impact on Black Communities in American on Monday, February 28 from 2-3 p.m. sponsored by JHU’s Black Faculty and Staff Association. The event is free for all Hopkins employees and aims to highlight the impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans and work being done to increase vaccine awareness. To register, click here. In addition, the JHM Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity has regular workshops and events including monthly office hours sessions with leadership. Learn more.
Black History Month is about seeing the full picture of U.S. history versus just the parts that have been highlighted in the past. The dark parts of the picture are not always easy to look at, but they are a necessary part of understanding current circumstances and improving the future for all.