Running while Black: A pediatrician reflects on race, racism, and Ahmaud Arbery

Lucas Favre

First of a two-part column

“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you
come to us endangered.” â€• Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”
 On February 23, 2020, less than three months shy of his 26th birthday, Ahmaud Arbery was
violently gunned down by two White men. They had chased him down, claiming that he matched
the description of a burglar in their neighborhood.

They offered no proof of this, but they were not arrested until almost two months later when
cellphone video of the incident became public. The video led to multiple questions and protests
about why it had taken so long to arrest these men.

As parents of Black children who are athletes, this incident hit close to home. One constant
fear we live with is that some racist coward will harm our children when all they want to do is
exercise.

We speak to our kids often about being safe. We tell them to dress in bright, athletic gear to
make it clear that they are exercising and not a threat. We ask them to run on their school track
and avoid neighborhoods they don’t know. We ask them to be careful of traffic even when they
have the right of way just in case someone weaponizes their vehicle.

We do our best to protect them from a society that often devalues their worth because of the
color of their skin. This incident again painfully brought home the horrible impact that racism
has on us and our children.

Last summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on the impact
of racism on children and adolescents. It defined racism as “a system of structuring opportunity
and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks that unfairly
disadvantages some individuals and communities while unfairly advantaging others.”

The authors noted that race is a social construct rooted in history and a means by which
social class is controlled. They also highlighted racism’s profound impact on the health of
children and their families, and the importance of recognizing the major adverse effects on the
individuals who receive, commit and observe racism.

Racism drives health inequities and is linked to birth disparities and mental health problems
in children and adolescents. The authors described how chronic stress results in increased and
prolonged exposure to stress hormones like cortisol, leading to inflammatory reactions that
predispose individuals to chronic illness.

They discussed how racism has become “a socially transmitted disease passed down through
generations, leading to the inequities observed in our population today.” The authors noted that
the optimal development of children in the United States would require substantial investments
in dismantling structural racism.

But what can parents do to protect their children? How do we arm them with the tools needed
to overcome the overt and covert racism they encounter and not have them become cynical
members of this society in which we live?

How do we comfort our children in the age of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice,
Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, and Breonna Taylor? How do we encourage
them when they can have the police called on them for mowing a neighbor’s lawn, or selling
lemonade, or sleeping in the student area at Yale, or choosing not to sit in the front row of a
college class at Ball State? We should continue talking to our children about the reality of racial differences and bias.

We should model how we want our children to respond to others who may be different than
them. We can encourage our children to challenge racial stereotypes and racial bias with
kindness and compassion in their interactions with people of all racial, ethnic and cultural
groups.

We should tell them about the innumerable Black men and women whose contributions to
art, literature, music, science and medicine are part of the fabric of American life. We should tell
them about our own families and their rich history and the resilience that our people have shown
over the centuries of struggle.

We should tell them that they are beautiful, smart and wonderfully made. We must tell them
that they are loved and have every right to be in this space and live their lives fully and make
meaningful contributions to society. So many have suffered and died and continue to do so
because of what Reverend Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sin.”    

However, despite the horrors of racism, there is hope. Despite the subjugation of slavery and
Jim Crow, Black culture and ingenuity permeate our society. Things are changing, and as
President Obama said so aptly, our children should “leave behind all the old ways of thinking
that divide us—sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed—and set the world on a different path.”

In Part II of this article, we will explore the ways communities are coming together to
combat racism. We will discuss how to engage our society’s institutions of higher learning,
health and government in policy and systems change.
References:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. (2015). Penguin Random House. New
    York, NY
  2. Trent M, Dooley DG, Dougé J, AAP Section On Adolescent Health, AAP Council On
    Community Pediatrics, AAP Committee On Adolescence. The Impact of Racism on Child
    and Adolescent Health. Pediatrics. 2019;144(2):e20191765
  3. Anderson, A and Dougé J. Talking to Children About Racial Bias. www.healthykids.org
  4. Jim Wallis. America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New
    America. (2017). Brazos Press. Grand Rapids, MI.
  5. President Obama Speech to High School Graduating Class of 2020. May 16th, 2020.

Dr. Kiragu is the medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Hennepin
Healthcare. He is also an associate of the Children’s Respiratory and Critical Care Specialist’s
group and provides pediatric critical care at Children’s of Minnesota. Dr. Kiragu is a
passionate advocate for children and is immediate-past president of the MN Chapter of the
American Academy of Pediatrics and a past president of the Minnesota Association of Black
Physicians. He is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.