BY AUDREY FISCHER
With a theme of "The Color Line Revisited: Is Racism Dead?" the keynote address for the 2002 Library of Congress African American History Month was delivered on Feb. 21 by Dr. Ivan Walks, chief health officer for the District of Columbia. (Dr. Walks has since resigned from his position, effective May 1.)
"I'll let you answer the question, but the fact that you can revisit something means you can still find it," said Dr. Walks.
Dr. Walks, who was much in the news this fall during the anthrax outbreak, expressed his pride at being asked to participate in the Library's celebration of African American History Month. "I don't know when I've felt more honored," he said.
However, he acknowledged that celebrating African American accomplishments can be a double-edged sword.
"Recognizing accomplishments can be good and bad," he said. "Some may point to Kenneth Chenault, the chief executive officer of American Express, who is also an African American man, and say, 'Problem solved.' That's very dangerous. Celebrate accomplishments, but don't believe the hype."
Even as a trained neuropsychiatrist with a medical degree from the University of California at Davis School of Medicine, Dr. Walks is no stranger to racial profiling.
"I know I'm different because I'm the only black male in America who has a letter of apology from Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates," he said. Although the circumstances of his false arrest may be commonplace in the black community, the special handling of his case, with the letter of apology, occurred only because of his stature as a public figure. (Dr. Walks served as a mental health commissioner in Los Angeles County in the mid-1990s and later as medical director for managed care for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.)
Although he described himself as a "typical angry black male," Dr. Walks has not dwelled on the negative.
"If you get caught up in the microinsults, then you won't achieve and they win." Dr. Walks defined "they" as "the ones who think we don't still have a problem because someone like Kenneth Chenault could become CEO of American Express."
"It goes back to how you were raised," he said. "The best advantage is having people put in your head the idea that you can achieve."
With immigrant parents who focused on what they could accomplish and, in turn, what their children could achieve, Dr. Walks had that advantage. Although he grew up knowing that there were only a few seats for African Americans in college and medical school, his mother would not let him use that as an excuse to fail. Instead she asked the question, "How many seats do you need?"
Dr. Walks recalled being the only black male in his medical school class of 100: "It was hard to remain anonymous when filling out a teacher evaluation form, even though we only had to identify ourselves by race, gender and number of years in medical school."
As a physician and public health official, Dr. Walks is deeply concerned about the disparity of treatment received by various populations along racial and socioeconomic lines. According to Dr. Walks, too often health care is administered according to stereotypes.
"We can make some assumptions about group behavior, but stereotypes teach us nothing about the individual," he said. "A good auto mechanic wouldn't simply look at a Chevy and determine that the problem must be the transmission. But when it comes to people, we do stupid stuff like that."
Dr. Walks would like to see the bar raised when it comes to setting standards for measuring success. Citing the District of Columbia's infant mortality rate of about 12 percent, he would like to see that figure reduced to zero.
"In a program like Healthy Start, where resources were applied to this problem, we have managed to reduce the infant mortality rate to zero," he noted. "When we see that 100 percent success can be achieved, then we shouldn't accept anything less. Let's stop saying that because some of us can get there it's okay. We must not just walk in our ancestors' footsteps and do better. We must walk in our ancestors' footsteps and take 100 percent with us."
During a question-and-answer period following his speech, Dr. Walks raised the issue of the handling of the anthrax outbreak at the Brentwood Post Office. In keeping with the African American History Month theme, he addressed the allegations of racism some felt explained the disparity in treatment between postal workers at the Brentwood Post Office and congressional staff in the Hart Senate Office Building.
"Three days after anthrax was found in a letter addressed to Sen. Daschle in the Hart Building, a group of us–including the white Postmaster General, the FBI, the news media–went to the Brentwood Post Office," said Dr. Walks. "It was just stupid not to realize that a problem could exist in the Brentwood facility. But when a whole group does something stupid, is that racism or honest ignorance?"
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.