Published March 4, 2021
“Love warriors” must step forward and fight systemic racism in society, Harvard University professor, bestselling author and political activist Cornel West recently told a UB audience.
West was speaking via Zoom at “Beyond the Knife,” the first public event of the Department of Surgery’s anti-racism and health care equity initiative.
In his opening remarks at the event on Feb. 18, West said it was fairly clear that we are living in a moment of increasing spiritual decay and escalating moral decrepitude.
“What we need more than anything else is the best the Black Freedom Movement has to offer, and that has always been an attempt to look chronic, systemic hatred in the face and still muster the courage to love, to love truth, to love beauty, to love greatness,” he said.
West used the term “love warrior” to describe the type of people he said are needed to step forward.
“Love warriors are those who have decided to cut radically against the grain and attempt to engage in forms of care and concern for others. They have a hypersensitivity to the suffering of others,” he said. “They are willing to give oneself, to emptying oneself, to give whatever gifts one has cultivated to make the world a better place.
“The love warriors at the University at Buffalo Department of Surgery are taking action in a big way to address the inequities our dear brothers and sisters must endure in regards to their health,” West said. ”Their efforts to connect doctors with the communities they serve is a powerful step forward in the fight for equality, fairness and healing that is so long overdue.”
Following his talk, West took questions from a panel featuring students, surgical residents and faculty from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, as well as community leaders.
The panel consisted of Timothy M. Adams, clinical assistant professor of surgery; Karole Collier, a fourth-year medical student; Rita Hubbard-Robinson, chief executive officer of NeuWater & Associates LLC and lead member of the African American Health Equity Task Force; Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning and director of the Center for Urban Studies in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning; and Frances I. Uwechue, a PGY-1 trainee in the general surgery residency program.
West fielded questions on a variety of topics, including how physicians can become better allies in the fight against health disparities and how they can encourage people of color to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
West said that restricted access to health care is the worst form of inequality and social movements are important for action to occur.
“We need to have a moral and spiritual awakening. We need people in motion inside institutions and against institutions to make sure that in the end those most vulnerable, the weakest, are given a priority,” he said.
“With organized greed and institutional hatred, there is not enough focus on the weak and the vulnerable, so you end up with a cultural callousness and ways of life that put indifference to the suffering of others at the center,” he added. “We need to shatter the culture of indifference.”
West quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century, who said, “indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.”
On the topic of vaccine hesitancy in minority populations, West said that “we have to recognize that everyday Black people are not stupid. They have a history of insight, a memory of violations.”
“We have to unflinchingly and candidly confront those insights and memories and convince them that out of our deep care and concern for them this vaccine is going to be a force of good in their lives,” he said.
“Most people rightfully understand that it is never a question of how much you know; it’s fundamentally a question of how much you care, so that what you know can be of service to others,” he said. “This is part of the moral and spiritual awakening I talk about. Doctors are at the vanguard, meaning they not only have the skill, they have the capacity to intervene.”
West told a deeply personal story to illustrate the level of distrust many Blacks have of the health care system.
“My grandmother died at the age of 31 in 1939 because a vicious Jim Crow hospital in Crowley, Louisiana, would not let her in after she pulled a tooth and started to bleed. The white doctor would not touch her with a 10-foot pole,” he said. “My whole family had to move to Texas after my grandfather showed up at the hospital with a shotgun and was run out of town.
“I’m sorry to get so personal, but this is my history. It is part of who we are,” West said.
James “Butch” Rosser, clinical professor of surgery in the Jacobs School, served as master of ceremonies and moderated the question-and-answer session. Rosser, an activist and thought leader on racial dynamics in medicine, worked with the Department of Surgery to launch the effort.
“We, as health care professionals, must not bury our heads in the sand in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death,” Rosser said. “The public must know that we are one of them and we are ready to do our part. This is urgent work: to address the monumental issues before us and map out specific actions to move the national conversation forward.”
Following the lecture, West stayed on to take additional questions from Collier, Uwechue and Goda Savulionyte, a PGY-3 trainee in the general surgery residency program.
The virtual conference represented the first of what will be an annual lecture series, initially funded by UBMD Surgery, focused on social justice and health care inequity.