COMMENTARY

What I Want People to Know About the Chauvin Verdict

Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH

April 23, 2021

Tuesday, I woke up from a nap to a barrage of text messages and social media alerts about the Derek Chauvin verdict. Messages varied in content, from "let's celebrate," to "just so exciting," to "finally." As I took in the sentiments of others, I could barely sense what, if any, sentiments I had of my own.

There I sat, a Black DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] consultant who calls herself a "psychiatrist-activist," but slept through the landmark court decision for policing African Americans and felt almost nothing about it.

However, I did have feelings about other matters such as the slide decks due for my client, sending reassuring text messages about the hospitalization of a friend's child, and the two weeks of patient notes on my to-do list. So why did I feel emotionally flatlined about an issue that should stimulate the opposite — emotional intensity?

The answer to "why" could be attributed to a number of psychological buzz words like trauma, grief, desensitization, dissociation, numbness or my new favorite term, languishing.

Despite the applicability of any of the above, I think my emotional flattening has more to do with the fact that in addition to the guilty verdict, I also woke up to news that 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant had been shot by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio.

I asked myself: How can anyone find time to grieve, nevertheless celebrate when (young) Black people continue to be killed by the police?

While it hurts to see individuals who look like me being shot by police, or even emboldened citizens, my hurt likely pales in comparison to someone who grew up surrounded by police gun violence. I grew up solidly middle class, lived in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac in a semi-gated community, and have many years ahead of me to reach my earning potential as a physician in one of the most liberal cities in the nation. While I have the skin color that puts me at risk of being shot by police due to racism, I am in a cushy position compared to other Black people who live in cities or neighborhoods with more police shootings.

Until there are more doctors who look like the racial breakdown of the nation, Black and Brown patients can never fully trust their primary care doctors, orthopedic surgeons, and psychiatrists who are White.

Given this line of thinking, it seems clearer to me why I do not feel like celebrating, but instead, feel grateful to be alive. Not only do I feel grateful to be alive, but alive with the emotional stamina to help White people understand their contributions to the widespread oppression that keeps our society rooted in white supremacy.

This brings me to my point of what I want people, especially physicians, to know about the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin: some of us cannot really celebrate until there is actual police reform. This is not to say that anyone is wrong to celebrate, as long as there is an understanding that a landmark court decision can represent a drop in the bucket for Black and Brown people who risk being shot by the police while unarmed just for being Black or Brown.

Meanwhile, White men like Kyle Rittenhouse who are peaceably arrested after shooting a man with a semi-automatic weapon receive donations from a Virginia police lieutenant. A policeman who, in a possible world, could one day pull me over while driving through Virginia given its proximity to Washington D.C., where I currently live.

Black and Brown people cannot fully celebrate until there is actual police reform, and reform across American institutions like the healthcare system. Celebration comes when the leaders who run schools, hospitals, and courtrooms look more like the numbers actually reflected in US racial demographics and look less like Derek Chauvin.

Until there are more doctors who look like the racial breakdown of the nation, Black and Brown patients can never fully trust their primary care doctors, orthopedic surgeons, and psychiatrists who are White. While this reality may sound harsh, it is the reality for many of us who are dealing with trauma, grief, desensitization, dissociation, emotional numbness, or languishment resulting from racist experiences.

People of color cannot and will not stop protesting in the streets, being the one who always brings up race in the meeting, or disagreeing that the new changes are "not enough" until there is actual anti-racist institutional reform. More importantly, the efforts of people of color can be made more powerful working collectively with White allies.

But we need White allies who recognize their tendency to perceive "progress" in racial equality. We need White allies who recognize that despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the two-time election of a Black president, and the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, there is still so much work to do.

Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. She reports no relevant financial relationships.

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