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June 15, 2020

Montefiore's CEO is a rare black executive in health care. Now he's opening up on his experience.

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    Montefiore Medicine President and CEO Philip Ozuah for months has been working to combat America's new coronavirus epidemic, but in an opinion piece published by the New York Times, Ozuah notes that, as a black man, he also faces "another virus as old as the country itself": racism.

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    Fighting two plagues

    Ozuah writes that past three months battling the country's new coronavirus epidemic "will haunt [him] forever." He writes, "At the Montefiore Health System, where I am the chief executive, the coronavirus has killed 2,204 patients and 21 members of our courageous staff, despite our best efforts."

    While public health efforts have helped "to mitigate the coronavirus, from self-quarantining and working from home to wearing masks and literally risking our lives to care for the sick," he notes that the country is now "coming to grips with another fearful crisis—the lethal effects of racism, the pain of which is all too familiar to me."

    Ozuah writes that it was "hard" for him to watch a recent viral video showing Amy Cooper, a white woman, call 911 on Christian Cooper, a black man who was bird watching and asked Amy to leash her dog. Ozuah notes that Amy told the 911 dispatcher that "an African-American man" was "threatening" her, which put Christian's "freedom and life in balance."

    "I know—from when I was stopped years ago in Los Angeles while walking through a white neighborhood to catch a bus—that the police could ask him to put his arms up in the air, turn around, walk backward, get on his knees, interlace his fingers behind his head and get frisked, all before any questions were asked," Ozuah writes. "And if he dared to be indignant and ask why … the situation could easily escalate. He may not go home that day."

    Ozuah writes that while he's never been arrested, Ozuah has experienced "the frustration and the rage and the humiliation of having to accept the abuse of police power." He writes, "I know what it feels like to be pulled over almost daily because you're young and you're black and you're male and you're driving a late-model automobile" and "to sit there for 40 minutes while they take the drug-sniffing dog through your car. For no reason whatsoever," only to then be dismissed with "no explanation and no apology."

    Ozuah continues, "I also know what it feels like to be at a fancy gala … in a tuxedo … and have other people walk up and hand you their mink coats and say, 'Check this for me.'"

    These experiences create a "cumulative burden … day after day, week after week, month after month, decade after decade," Ozuah writes. He continues, "While I know from experience that most law enforcement officers honorably fulfill their oath to protect and serve, African American men in particular have reason to fear that the police will hurt or kill them because of the color of their skin and they deserve to be free from that fear."

    A reason for hope?

    Ozuah notes that, during troubling times like America's been experiencing over the past few months, it's difficult to find comfort. However, he writes, he has "hope that these twin disasters disproportionately hurting minorities"—racism and Covid-19—"could finally prove the true strength of our shared humanity."

    In the same way that Americans adapted their behavior to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, Ozuah writes, "I dare to hope that we as a people can summon the same selfless courage and determination to change our behavior to address the endemic racism and brutality that plagues our country. Then finally we may rid ourselves of that deadly virus as well" (Ozuah, New York Times, 6/9).

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