Oak Brook physician who came from India laments being ignorant of nation's racist past
Recent events have shocked me into the realization that I have been woefully ignorant of the racist past of my country. I have lived the cocooned life of a "privileged minority." There are millions like me.
As an immigrant physician from India, I have been happily pursuing the American dream. I cannot be more grateful to my adopted country for giving me success. I am immensely proud of how well my family has done. With rare exceptions, there hasn't been a day when I did not shake my head and say, "What a great country." The exceptions were days when I was stung by Islamophobia or was the subject of suspicion at an airport.
I have taken care of every patient regardless of race, color, religion or sexual orientation. I hope I did this with compassion and professionalism. I have told myself I am not a racist and that I understood the way African Americans felt.
Now I know I was being disingenuous with myself. Some of it is the failure to recognize my subconscious racism and some simple ignorance about the country's racist history.
I had never heard of the Tulsa pogrom of the 1920s till I read about it in a book last year given to me as a birthday gift. President Trump's recent campaign event in Tulsa, just a few blocks away from the Greenwood district, did a lot, inadvertently, to shine light on this particularly gruesome page of American history. I wasn't aware how those who were freed from slavery were incarcerated in huge numbers for trivial crimes and remained essentially enslaved. I was ignorant of the brutal suppression of the bus boycott and the jailing of the protesting schoolchildren in the 1950s and 1960s. I did not know that President Kennedy would not sign, for political reasons, a second "Emancipation Proclamation" that Martin Luther King so wanted on the hundredth anniversary of the first. I wasn't aware of the extent of redlining. No one had heard of Juneteenth. That those who went to school here also did not know many of these events is an indictment of the education system. Ignorance is at the root of stereotyping.
I carry an additional burden that the benefits that I enjoy are the results of the sacrifices made by others during the civil rights struggle. I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I was once sarcastically called an "honorary white." It stung to hear that, but it was an accurate description.
The essential first step, I understand well, is to deal with personal incipient bias. As faith plays a large part in fighting racism, I turn to mine. The Qur'an, the scripture I follow, tells me all humanity is one and differences are to be celebrated; "O mankind, We have created you male and female, and made you into races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you." Prophet Muhammad reinforced the notion that the only distinction that counts should be righteous action. "No Arab is superior to a non-Arab and non-Arab to an Arab, except by righteous behavior," he said. The person he selected to give the first call to prayer was not just someone with a great voice, but a former African slave named Bilal.
More difficult is institutional reform needed to change police practices, the criminal justice system and the social and economic ecosystem. The risk is that the passion of the moment may pass. The feelings of genuine remorse and the desire to change may fade with time. The waves of demonstrations seen recently are leaderless. History tells us that grass-roots movements need leadership to succeed.
The thoughtful America that leads a peaceful life, and cares for its neighbor, has to demand accountability and work toward social, political and economic equity. This is much harder than changing labels on food products. Even more difficult is to effect change in a balanced manner, while maintaining a society with law and order.
We are a country with a broken and bruised soul. When and how it will heal itself is an open question, but heal it must. If our country is able to change itself, the positive effect will be worldwide and lives of oppressed minorities all over the world might also change.
• Javeed Akhter is a physician and freelance writer from Oak Brook.