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Statement from Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion André L. Churchwell regarding the death of George Floyd

My Heart is Broken.

As a native Nashvillian and a Vanderbilt physician, I cannot uncouple my medical experiences from the lens through which I view the world. As I watched a recording of the virulent act, an impassive policeman using his knee and his body weight to slowly compress and crush the neck of Mr. George Floyd, I could not stop myself from seeing all the vital structures present – his windpipe which delivers oxygen to his body; his carotid arteries that supply oxygen to his brain – and knowing that injuring any one or combination of them would lead to his untimely death.

After watching this grim scene, I reached out to experts in behavioral psychology to help me understand what mental and emotional forces allow one human being to be so callous, and without apparent remorse, as to gradually and knowingly kill another human being. One expert told me that while he could not offer a definitive answer, a partial one resides in two domains.

The first concept is when one believes, through years of generational messaging inculcated deep into the psyche, that a black person’s life has less value, then one can commit a violent act without fear of retribution or grief. Black people – and people of color in general – then can be deemed both unconsciously and consciously as “subhuman,” and viewing them as such allows one to feel psychological ascendancy over them. The idea of white privilege has its roots in the pseudoscience that states that Africans and African Americans have “intellectual and moral deficiencies,” and is why, consequently, white people from 1619 (the year enslaved Africans arrived in America), 1719, 1819, 1919, 2019, and on, can act dismissively toward them and create rules and laws to enable their subjugation.

The other mental and emotional force that compels such heinous behavior is contempt. Contempt, by definition, leads one to not simply dislike what someone has said or done, but adds revulsion and derision to your assessment of a whole race. It, once again, deeply influences the manner in which you treat people of color, allows you to purposely crush the neck of a black man in full public view, and further grants you approval to dismiss the cries and concerns that you are killing Mr. Floyd.

My Heart is Broken.

The death of George Floyd, as many recently have detailed, is one in a series of acts of violence toward black people

So – how can we make a difference?

Part of our role as a university is to take the limitless potential of a single student and, during their four years at Vanderbilt, assist them in developing all of their nascent skills and intellect. We feel that the same potential exists in every person, and therefore no life should be treated so callously and with such indifference as Mr. Floyd’s. Another purpose of a university is to instill complex thoughts, morals and seeds of wisdom into the minds of students, thus assisting them to understand individual human purpose and its infinite possibilities. These possibilities are not “solely owned” by a single race but are the province of ALL people.

Furthermore, as others have posited, more than one virus infects this country; the older virus is racism, in all its age-old shapes and forms of “deadly infestation.” We have attempted to address it, but being America’s original sin, we have not brought forth all the resources needed for a solution.

Solutions will require public and private partnership and a total re-engineering of human attitudes, physical resources and societal approaches to correct all the structural maladies that perpetuate racism. We see these maladies in the form of public housing practices that lock marginalized people in dilapidated housing for generations, the lack of health equity policies which leads to disparities and disproportionate mortality for black and brown people, and the lack of a national plan to address the problem of the growing failure of public education.

All who live in this city and country would benefit from solving any or all of these problems. The challenge is that it will take ardent and sustained moral leadership and a permanent, unswerving commitment to social justice to effect lasting change.

Vanderbilt, through its nationally-ranked schools and thought-leaders, can and must be part of the solution to these age-old problems.

My Heart is Broken.

In my role as a cardiologist and medical school educator, I have come to appreciate that a “broken heart” can occur both literally and physically. Severe mental stress or anguish can trigger the body to release stress hormones in such abundance that the heart can be severely damaged. The good news is that, in time, with treatment of the underlying stressors and situational conditions that led to the problem, the heart can recover to normal. If we view our city and country as a “broken heart,” we can, with the correct “treatments,” guided by our faith, morals and beliefs in the infinite possibilities of a single life, mend our broken heart. Indeed, we MUST.

We must also believe that our great institutions, like Vanderbilt, can be part of the treatment and new solutions to help our city and country heal.

-André L. Churchwell
Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
Chief Diversity Officer
Vanderbilt University