In This Issue
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Nuclear Energy Revisited
September 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 3
The desire to reduce the carbon intensity of human activities and strengthen the resilience of infrastructure key to economic prosperity and geopolitical stability shines a new spotlight on the value and challenges of nuclear energy.

Member Reflection Humanity Binds Us

Monday, September 21, 2020

Author: Roderic I. Pettigrew

Many were appalled to observe the Central Park incident where a woman used the ethnicity of a peaceful bird watcher and a 911 call in a failed effort to ­subjugate him based on his color. However, this incident was actually a service to the nation because it unveiled just how pervasive racism is in our society. As a majority person, the woman knew that this country’s core racism is so systemic and its actuation so predictable, she could ­easily weaponize it. She knew that there is an imbalance of power based purely on a trivial difference in skin tone. If ever there was a question about this attitude and behavior existing broadly in our society, the ­Central Park incident answered it: It exists, it is real, and it has resulted in multiple shocking deaths and other ­injustices that the world has now witnessed in anguish.

When the death of Houstonian George Floyd was observed, his torture at the knee of a purveyor of this naked truth was just too much to bear. When George took his last breath, so did the national tolerance for the societal ill that took his life and the lives of many before him.

This disregard for the basic humanity of minorities is a bear of a problem. It happens to people simply born with darker skin tones and affects them for all of their lives. In some way or form, it is inescapable for all people of ­color. That certainly has been true for me. Despite mainstream education, lifelong citizenship, and doing my part to contribute to our society, I have never stopped experiencing racial inequities—large and small, overt and subtle.

As a young person in the late 1960s in Albany, GA, I badly needed braces—my front teeth were rather protuberant. The town’s only orthodontist refused to accept me as a patient. After many calls over several months by my father, a compromise was reached: The orthodontist would treat me with braces, but I would have to secretly come to his office, entering through a back alley door in the evening, after hours. For two years, my mother and I did just that.

Over the years since, the frequency and range of continued big and small injustices might surprise many. Being angrily called the N-word as a child reading a ­Popular Science magazine at a newsstand; having an apartment landlord slam the door in my face just minutes after he confirmed by phone the availability of multiple units to rent; having a famous cardiologist at a major hospital question why I needed to know where the MRI room was, since it had just been cleaned. In this last example, I had arrived after hours to install the first cardiac imaging software in that MRI system—software that I had developed, written, and would later teach to this same cardiologist. I will never forget a referring ­physician describing his Black patient to me in disparaging racial terms over the phone, not knowing that I too was Black, and the many times—some in recent years—that I have been approached by policemen in airports to be asked how much money I was carrying or to describe my reason for travel. I was effectively being asked to “show my papers” that would establish my legitimacy.

These episodes don’t kill you in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, but they are deadly. They can kill spirit, a sense of humanity, and any sense of equity. They prevent a sense of belonging. They stifle creativity, realization of potential, and contributions to solving big problems like a cure for Alzheimer’s, a vaccine against a deadly virus, or sustaining a clean climate. They remove any sense of societal fair play or meaningful opportunity. The peaceful protesters, who are racially, ethnically, and generationally mixed and global, realize this systemic ill. They realize that through our connectedness, this ill is injurious to us all. It is a blight on our planet.

So how do we get out of this? How do we realize the change for which so many from varied demographic sectors throughout the world are now calling? I think the answer lies, in substantial part, in a communal experience that teaches us we comprise one beautiful human mosaic.

When people learn that our shared humanity binds us one to the other, that differences which do not involve character actually bring character to our interwoven lives, that is when our society will honor its stated commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

 A version of this personal essay was posted in Texas A&M Today (July 20) and published online in AAMC Insights (July 24).

Photo 1 

This reflection is dedicated to the memory of US Congressman John Lewis (1940–2020).

Roderic Pettigrew and Rep. John Lewis at the 2016 Candle in the Dark Awards Gala of Morehouse College. Rep. Lewis received the Candle Award for achievements in civil rights and public service. Dr. Pettigrew is a previous award recipient.


About the Author:Roderic I. Pettigrew (NAE/NAM) was founding director of the NIH National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and is now CEO of Engineering Health (EnHealth) and executive dean for Engineering Medicine (EnMed) at Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist Hospital.