Opinion: Juneteenth was different this year

Woods’ ancestors ‘bequeathed’ to slave owner’s sons

OPINION. By Eugene A. Woods. Millions of people across the nation celebrated Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States 155 years ago – the sequela of which we are still dealing with to this very day.

I recently completed my family genealogy going back to the days when some of my own ancestors were slaves in Carroll County, Tennessee. Flipping through historical documents this morning, I found a deed in which a slave owner of one of my ancestors bequeathed a “…girl Ann aged about eighteen and her son Stephen aged about two” as property to his sons – this made it very real for me.

So, on this day, I, along with many others, stand on the shoulders of countless heroes—known and unknown, black, brown and white—who have come before us and have lived and died for the American declaration that all are created equal and all should be free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

This year is different

Yet, this Juneteenth feels oddly different from previous years of celebration because of the recent, senseless deaths of several people of color. It has made me reflect and recognize how much has been done, but how much farther we have still to go.

Most people don’t know that Juneteenth wasn’t the actual day when slaves were freed, since that change began with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Juneteenth is, in fact, the day when word finally reached those still enslaved in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that their emancipation had already been made formal.

Many have debated the reason why things remained the same for two and a half years after President Lincoln’s executive order. For whatever reason though, for slaves, conditions in Texas remained status quo 900 days beyond what was made law.

Status quo: Paralyzing our nation

And to some degree, this same status quo of inequality and inequity is still paralyzing our nation today.

Research shows that African Americans earn approximately 60 cents for every dollar that white Americans earn. And while this gap is troubling in and of itself, to recognize the depth of inequality in this country, we need to dig deeper to understand the differences in wealth. African Americans also have only 10 cents in accumulated wealth for every dollar that white Americans own. Since wealth is typically passed down from one generation to another, this gap reveals intergenerational impacts of systemic racism of the past.

In other words, the systemic racism that previous generations experienced, through practices like redlining and lack of access to the GI Bill among Black troops returning home from World War II, continue to affect their children and grandchildren.

We know, unequivocally, that people with greater income and greater wealth simply live longer and healthier lives. They can afford health insurance, which provides them access to preventative and wellness care … but healthcare access is only the tip of the iceberg. They can also afford to live in safer neighborhoods, with better schools and closer to parks and places to exercise … and have access to transportation, healthy food options and, in many cases, hospitals and healthcare providers.

These are all social determinants of health, which we talk about all the time in healthcare, and especially here at Atrium Health. But we talk less about the systemic and historical reasons as to why these resources are distributed differently across racial lines.

If we truly want to understand the roots of anger and despair that has gripped our country in recent weeks, then we need to have deeper conversations about the difficulties being faced and not be content with the status quo. Now, more than ever, we need to understand disparities in health are inextricably linked to disparities in wealth, and we can’t solve for the former unless we are committed to solving for the latter.

At Atrium Health, I’m very proud of the work we are doing to solve for both:

—This past February, we raised our minimum wage to $13.50 per hour, which is 86 percent higher than North Carolina’s minimum wage requirement of $7.25 – with plans to increase to $15 by 2021.

—We’ve also made an incredible commitment of $10 million to increase affordable housing options.

—We’ve invested over $2 billion per year in community benefits, as the largest safety net provider in the state.

—We have community programs in place, such as our Kids Eat Free, providing free and nutritious meals to thousands of children every summer.

—We’re also investing in challenged high schools to give students a pathway to successful careers.

—And, most recently, we’ve completely eliminated the racial disparities in COVID-19 testing in underserved Charlotte communities.

We know that more still needs to be done.

Silver lining?

If there is a silver lining from these recent events, it’s the amount of good people in our world who are no longer sitting silently on the sidelines. And I believe there are even more who are willing to step up, stare inequality and injustice in the face, and say “no more.”

We must pledge to be present. To break down barriers and do our part to close gaps. To reach out to those who are struggling. To bring our authentic selves to the table. To open and promote a space where everyone is welcome. To have courageous conversations where we listen and learn from each other. And to stand up for what we firmly believe in.

As I shared with my colleagues recently, we know there’s probably going to be a vaccine for COVID-19 one day, but there’s never going to be a vaccine for racism. Real change starts in one’s own heart and will require a collective effort. We must act, together.

So, on this 155th celebration of Juneteenth, I believe it is time for every single one of us to commit to working as one to eliminate the systemic racism and prejudice that are still as real in our present, as they were in our past.

We can all learn from each other. And as the landscape changes, we must change, too, because standing still and accepting the status quo is simply going backward.

—Eugene A. Woods is president & CEO of Atrium Health


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