Linda Rae Murray, APHA president, Opening Session

Linda Rae Murray, APHA president, Opening Session


Next, I’d like to introduce to you the current
APHA president Dr. Linda Rae Murray. Good morning everybody. Welcome to the hundred
thirty-ninth annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. In this year we gather as you know, again,
in our nation’s capital. And again, we find ourselves challenged. Our public health infrastructure,
both governmental and nongovernmental, is no longer crumbling. In
many places it has simply collapsed. That is the issue we will explore next June during
our mid-year meeting, in North Carolina. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that
this time is just another expression of our chronic disease state, being under-appreciated,
under-funded, misunderstood and invisible. Much of what we do at these meetings is about
the critical public health infrastructure. But these are not usual times. The steady
of erosion of the foundations of public health and the foundations of our nation, force us
to declare that the health of our people is in critical condition. I stand before you as a mature health professional.
That means I’m getting old. And us old folks need to ask each other: Are we where we used
to be? Are we where we thought we would be? Infant mortality has plummeted for all groups
in the United States, but the gap between Blacks and Whites has not decreased. School
counselors have stopped telling young Black boys, like my father, ‘You’re a bright lad,
maybe when you grow up you can be a shoeshine boy.’ But in some neighborhoods in Chicago,
for every 100 Black boys that start kindergarten, only three have earned a bachelor’s degree
by the age 25. The number and percent of Black men in medical school has been steadily declining
for the past two decades. Are we where we thought we would be? We are Americans. And we so easily forget
our history. But we should not forget the raping of the land and the forced resettlement
of our indigenous peoples and the genocide that the Nation perpetrated on them. Not when
today we still destroy young native children by forcibly and illegally removing them to
foster care. How dare we instruct the world about freedom
and forget our own colonial history, and its impact on Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and
other Pacific Island people. How dare our nation, that took centuries to end chattel
slavery, remain silent about human trafficking and the oppression that it represents, particularly
for young women. We are a nation of immigrants, many feeling social and economic despair in
their homelands. How can we deny the role that racism has played in our immigration
policies in the past, with laws to prevent Chinese from becoming citizens, or the racism
of today as we discuss immigrant groups? We ignore the fact that immigrants, who come
to our Nation, work in our fields and factories, pay taxes, and enrich our people
– How dare we pretend that simply because some of them have no ‘documents,’ How dare
we pretend that they are the problem? The problem is the hypocrisy of a nation that
will not admit that the lack of legal status allows us to exploit and oppress these communities
and guarantees a ready supply of cheap labor. We stand here today in our nation’s capital
as public health workers in a country that still refuses to guarantee healthcare as a
fundamental human right. As we meet, our elected officials are plotting to defund and cripple
our most recent attempt at health reform, the Affordable Care Act, an Act that on its
best day, will only bring medical insurance to half of those uninsured. We have been brainwashed. Brainwashed to believe
that a trillion-dollar health care budget cannot provide medical care for every
man, woman, and child, and for that matter every cat and dog, in the country. Bullshit. If we would simply enact a single-payer medical
insurance system we could turn our attention to difficult health problems. No,
we are not where we used to be, but we are not where we need to be, and it is critical
that we understand why, and how we can change that reality. Public health–particularly governmental public
health–stands in danger of destroying our seed stock. We are training more and more
health professionals than ever, but both governmental and non-governmental positions are being cut.
Our response as a field has often been to retreat into ever more technical approaches,
to believe that somehow data can protect us. And that evidence-based interventions will
improve the health of our nation. So we lie to our young. We train them in technical skills
when we know that policy is not determined by p-values or by data, but by power and politics. We need science, but not as a shield. It will
not protect us from the consequences of calling for the conditions we need to create healthy
people and healthy communities. We know that health is determined by– not influenced by,
determined by social conditions. That is why social, economic, political, educational inequalities,
produce health inequalities. I agree with the observation of the World Health Organization
in its Closing The Gap report that said, “this unequal distribution of health-damaging experience
is not in any sense a natural phenomenon, but it is the result of a toxic combination
of poor social policies and programs, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics.” And I would add bad science. Science is a
toolbox for examining the world. Science is not a monolith. It doesn’t exist only in a
biomedical paradigm. It’s not a religion. It’s a process, full of a wide variety of
methods and frameworks for changing the world. Our present public health orthodoxy restricts
our ability to question, to measure, to create new realities. Let us listen to each other.
Let us argue with each other. There is more to science than simply p-values and process-looked-at
interventions. Move out of your comfort zone. Listen to your colleagues, especially colleagues
in our caucuses of color–and my favorite, the Spirit of 1848–as they challenge
the proposition that reductionist Western methodologies are the correct tool for every
situation. What we have been doing is not working. If we remember our history we’ll find that
the doubling of life expectancy between 1850 and 1950 happened because public health was
wedded to, embedded in, the social movements of the day. It will not be safe. Use APHA and our sister
organizations as your shield. It will not be easy, and progress will not be in a straight
line. There will be ups, and as we know, there will be many downs. But you know what must
be done. People must have jobs, with economic security and dignity. Today’s minimum wage
is less than the wage in 1960. Organized labor has shrunk to only 8% of our workforce. But
even in its weakened state unions represent the last bulwark between sanity and chaos. The median wealth for Black families is less
today than it was a generation ago. Latinos have lost more wealth in the foreclosure crisis
than in the entire history of the nation. Progress in the last hundred years–Social
Security, healthcare, pensions, public education, the weekend–are being undone. Educational-,
economic-, health-inequities are widening: We are moving backwards. Some of us faster
than others. When I was a little girl, my great-grandmother,
who was born just after the end of slavery, often explained to me: ‘White folks,’ she
said, ‘will keep you down. They will kick you. They’ll knock you to the ground. The
only thing you have to decide in life is how often you will stand up.’ I believe in the lessons of history. That’s
why I’ll be joining our colleagues from this meeting as they march in solidarity with Occupy
Washington. History teaches me that when we fight against the oppression of women, when
we fight to protect workers and allow them to keep the wealth that they produce, when
we fight to end racism, then and only then, do we make progress. Public health believes that health is a basic
human right. We understand that the health of people and all living things, including
the planet, requires peace and justice. Later this week I will visit the new King
memorial with my grandchildren, and I will tell them what my great-grandmother told me,
that if they stand up, we can make his dream a reality. Brother James Baldwin wrote in
The Fire Next Time, ‘I know that what I am asking is impossible, but in our time, as
in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand. And one is, after all,
emboldened by the spectacle of human history, and by American Negro history in particular,
for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.’ You know what we need to do and you know why. So remember the advice of my great-grandmother
and Brother Baldwin: Grab hold of our science, and gather our people to fight to make change.
Stand up and insist on the impossible. Demand freedom now. Demand peace now. Demand justice
now.

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