The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Guest Opinion | What in the world is going on? Where is everyone? A call to action

A UI Health Care general surgery resident shares his opinion why Iowans need Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives now more than ever.
Kathy Le
The entrance of the University of Iowa’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office is seen in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2023.

On June 5, 2020, shortly after the tragic and unjust killing of George Floyd, I stood on a bench in front of the lawn facing the University of Iowa medical school building, and addressed one of the largest crowds that I have ever had the privilege to address to date.

The lawn was packed with several hundreds of hospital employees and community residents with others joining via Zoom. I spoke about anti-Black racism. I spoke about the need for empathy and urgent action to dismantle systemic racism in our community. The support that followed was exhilarating. I was blown away by the number of people who proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” and by the steps taken by the UI and the UI Hospitals & Clinics [UIHC] to reflect on our approach to addressing discrimination as well as reinforce Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [DEI] in our institution and community. However, short of four years later and just two months shy of one of the quietest Black History Months in Iowa, it seems that our leaders have forgotten this recent history. I was appalled to recently read the widely shared report that the Iowa legislature voted to dismantle DEI across all public universities.

First, we must admit that at the heart of the anti-DEI efforts in Iowa and United States is anti-Black racism, even though these deplorable efforts also significantly negatively affect other minority groups. These efforts are rooted in the racist notion that successful Black individuals are not worthy of their achievements and have not earned their place through merit of their hard work. There is belief that despite centuries of abuse and systemic exclusion that Black people continue to face in the U.S., the U.S. owes them nothing — not reparations, not teaching their history, and certainly not opportunity of any kind, including access to high-quality education, health care, or employment. Though some progress has been made through improved public awareness of systemic impact of these issues, it is wishful thinking to believe that the generational impact of several hundred years of slavery, several more years of segregation, and institutionalization of separate but equal doctrine of Jim Crow era have all magically completely disappeared.

In Iowa specifically, the socioeconomic disparities propagated by this history in several aspects of life for Black residents are damning. Briefly, recent data from the Iowa Cancer Registry shows that Black Iowans suffer the highest mortality rates from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in the state. In fact, the life expectancy of a Black Iowan is about five years shorter than that of a white resident. According to the Iowa Department of Public Education, racial and ethnic minorities have the highest high school dropout rates in Iowa. Between 2020 and 2021, the dropout rate for Black students was nearly three times that of white students. Furthermore, the incarceration rates for Black residents in Iowa is more than nine times that of white residents, ranking Iowa seventh in the nation for incarcerating its Black population. Additionally, home ownership rates, insurance rates, and employment rates are lowest for Black Iowans. Surely, these statistics should make our collective belly turn. Surely, these statistics should serve as clear indications that we are failing our Black residents in numerous ways.

What does DEI do?

Although DEI initiatives may not solve all of the aforementioned issues, they are a crucial start and are important in our community now more than ever. At their core, DEI initiatives are an acknowledgement and commitment of our society to justice, ensuring that those who are historically excluded because of pervasive bias in the system are included. They are a pledge to empower marginalized individuals in our society by giving them a voice and a seat at the table. They are a commitment to provide support, promote understanding of our history, and avoid errors of the past.

Using my field of health care as an example, the importance of DEI cannot be overstated. Physicians from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to work with underserved populations and to serve minority patients irrespective of income. A diverse healthcare workforce can also help repair the historical mistrust that many minority populations have of the health care system and thereby enhance access to care. Moreover, diversity in healthcare academia enhances cultural competency in medical education, enriching the educational experience for both minority and non-minority medical students.

I experienced firsthand the invaluable support of my DEI office during my medical training. Through it, I found a community invested in my success as it connected me with colleagues and mentors who shared similar life experiences with discrimination, microaggression, and racism. I also encountered individuals with personal ties to minorities in the community and a deep-rooted understanding of the barriers to health care access. Similarly, when I started my residency training in Iowa, the DEI office was crucial in helping me connect with other Black trainees and adapt to my new home. I have worked closely with our DEI offices to recruit and retain more physicians from historically marginalized communities to our institution. I have witnessed the impact of initiatives such as the UI Mobile Health Clinic that specifically aim to improve health access for minorities in our community. I have seen trust and confidence grow in the eyes of my Black patients and in the eyes of my several Black mentees across all levels of education from undergraduate to medical training, knowing that they have advocates within the system. We surely cannot stop now.

Where do we go from here?

At this juncture, I call on everyone who kneeled with me for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and everyone who recognizes that there are deeply ingrained systemic injustices that need to be addressed, to raise our voices. As a society, we must reflect on the world we want our children to live in. Continued anti-DEI efforts only deepen historical wounds and exacerbate disparities for marginalized members of our state. These efforts isolate existing talent within the system and impede our ability to attract new ideas and talents to our community. Now more than ever, we must vehemently resist the ongoing efforts to portray DEI in a negative light.

Furthermore, we must hold those in public office accountable. Their stance on DEI should be a central issue. Their stance on anti-Black racism and their ideas to empower marginalized individuals in our society must be on the ballot. The list of representatives who voted in favor of the anti-DEI bill is publicly available [22]. Similarly, at the national level we must not overlook these matters when we cast our votes. Community organizations must start working together to mobilize residents to vote for values that reflect us when Nov. 5 comes around. Additionally, we need more individuals from marginalized communities to step up and run for public office because our current legislature does not reflect our diversity. Currently, despite 16 percent of Iowans identifying as minorities, the Iowa legislature comprises only half this proportion.

Finally, I urge private organizations within our community to be vocal for what is right. Private organizations in the U.S. wield considerable influence power, and there are numerous historical instances of them advocating for DEI. Now is the time for increased support, including scholarships and funding for community service organizations, public health entities, and research initiatives dedicated to combating disparities in our community.

In sum, this moment in history demands that we all stand up for what is just and be able to tell our children one day that we stood on the right side. It is imperative that we reject bigotry in our community. Now more than ever, we must strive for a society that embraces diversity, promotes equity, and includes all marginalized members.

Disclaimer: This op-ed reflects my personal views and does not reflect the views of my employer.

– Mohammed O. Suraju

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About the Contributor
Kathy Le, Photojournalist
Kathy Le is a fourth-year student at The University of Iowa majoring in 3D design and Art History. This is her first year working as a photojournalist of Daily Iowan.