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'Repress or Repair?'
Black History Keynoter Robinson Warns Against Repeating the Past

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Bill Branson

On the Front Page...

Echoing the oft-cited caveat coined by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, the keynote speaker at NIH's 2001 Black History Month program implored the audience to connect the past to the future in meaningful and practical ways.


"I invite you to make Black History Month more than a ritual, something more than a ceremonial occasion that we sit through every year," said Randall Robinson, president of TransAfrica, an organization he founded to promote and inform United States policy toward Africa and the Caribbean. "I'd like you to relate the conditions of the present to a causation of the past."

Randall Robinson

NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, a longtime vocal supporter of minority issues throughout her more than 40-year career at NIH, said she looks forward every year to the agency's Black History Month observance.

"This year in particular is a time for reflection and a call to action," she said in opening remarks. "Over the years we at NIH have held many celebrations to honor the contributions of African Americans to the rich history of our nation. These contributions include social, economic and — for us — scientific accomplishments that have enhanced the quality of life for everyone. However, we can no longer revel in celebrating the past, unless we also focus on the future. Here at NIH we have initiated a call to action to address health disparities in the African American community."

In addition to establishment of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, another of the accomplishments Kirschstein said was most gratifying was inclusion, with the updating last fall of the Health Care Fairness Act, of a measure to fund the loan repayment program. The program will allow NIH to help thousands of newly graduated minority scientists enter their professions debt-free, instead of saddled by student loans. Loan repayment now can be used as an incentive to encourage students from underrepresented minority populations to pursue medical research as a career.

"While NIH has come a long way," Robinson said, "NIH must meet the challenge presented by the ceremony today by making sure that African American senior scientists are represented within its ranks. Still, on that score, the record at NIH is nothing short of dismal. So, we have a long way to go."

NINR/NIDCD EEO Officer Kay Johnson Graham (l) presents program poster to Janice Jackson, director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County Gospel Choir.

He acknowledged that he has been conflicted by the concept of Black History Month because it seems to suggest that history can be segregated. "Any history of America, of the world that includes a story about California without descriptions of the role of Latino Americans and Mexicans must be a flawed history," he said. "Any history of America, any history of the world that does not describe the role of Asian Americans in the development of this culture and society must be a flawed history. Any history taught to any child in any school in America that does not start with a history of the first Americans — Native Americans — must be a flawed history. Any history that does not integrate into the story the contributions of African Americans at home and abroad must be a flawed history. If it is flawed, then it is not history. It is a deceit."

Robinson noted that the nation has an income gap between blacks and whites that is "static, structural and longstanding. In good times and bad times, whatever the unemployment rate is in the country, the African American unemployment rate is always twice as high." What's more, he added, the country needs to resolve the wealth gap, and a derivative of that — the health gap — which finds blacks virtually throughout the world at the bottom of all the health statistics.

"One of the things we must do in Black History Month is seek to discover the whole of our story and then understand its implications for the present and the future," Robinson asserted, recalling humorously that he used to regard studying history as meanness inflicted by old people upon young people. "The ground is shifting under our democracy. Our democracy is moving. The democracy of this day is not what it was yesterday and will not be the same tomorrow...These inequities — the health gap, wealth gap — may be affordable now, but 50 years from now America will be a fundamentally different place. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans 50 years from now will comprise the new American majority. We will be a majority country of color. That means we will not be able to afford the gaps that we live with now."

Keynote speaker Robinson is greeted by veteran program planner O.H. Laster, who is retired from NIH, but returns to consult on planning for special events.

Author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks and an advocate for reparations to African Americans for nearly two and a half centuries of slavery in this country, Robinson said the United States is at a crossroads in time.

"Centuries ago," he recalled, "South African society had to make a similar choice. When you have abused people, do you honestly seek to repair or to repress? Do you merely pay lip service to repairs, while you continue to repress? Or, do you really commit yourself to a path of equity? South Africa committed itself to the path of repression. Apartheid was the consequence, disaster was the outcome...We must make the decision now in our society, in contemplating the future, whether we will repress or repair."

Noting that 75 percent of the population in American prisons is African-, Latino- and Hispanic American, and that the economies of many U.S. towns are being revitalized seemingly on the uncompensated efforts of minorities who are disenfranchised, Robinson concluded, "The future is beginning to look like the past. It will not be named slavery, [but] in the measure of its exploitation of the people, it will amount to the same thing."

The black history program — planned by Kay Johnson Graham, NINR/NIDCD EEO officer and O.H. Laster, a consultant and longtime NIH'er, and their committee — also included musical tributes to black history by the University of Maryland Baltimore County Gospel Choir, directed by international soloist Janice Jackson.

Dr. John Ruffin

Dr. John Ruffin, director of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, offered closing remarks: "The new center is charged with supporting and conducting research aimed at eliminating health disparities among minorities and other disadvantaged populations in this country. If we're talking about compensation to African Americans for slavery, there's no better role that NIH can play than to forge ahead and fulfill that mission, so that we can understand the reasons for disparities in health. Once we understand why the disparities exist, hopefully we can begin to wipe them out. We can't change history, but we can change the present to impact the future."

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