University School of Medicine alumna Dr. Sherita Hill Golden discussed the impacts of two interwoven issues — systemic racism and COVID-19 — on Americans in a virtual discussion held Tuesday by the University’s Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as part of the Community Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy.
The discussion was hosted in partnership with Retold, a University Alumni Association organization dedicated to “celebrating the women of U.Va.” Jessica Hamilton, director of alumni programs for the Alumni Association, moderated the event. University alumni and other members of the Charlottesville community were also in attendance.
Dr. Maurice Apprey, professor of psychiatric medicine at the School of Medicine and dean of the Office of African American Affairs, introduced Golden, saying he knows “of no one more qualified to juxtapose two topics as big as a pandemic and that deeply-rooted, that equally-virulent case of systemic racism.”
Golden was raised in Maryland and attended the University of Maryland. There, she was a member of the sorority Delta Sigma Theta, one of the historically Black “Divine Nine” National Pan-Hellenic Council Greek fraternities and sororities.
“I think [the sorority] helped me to discover my purpose and calling as an African American woman,” Golden said. “I took a lot of the lessons of social justice that [the] organization was founded on into my medical journey.”
Golden then attended the University’s School of Medicine, where she discovered her passion for endocrinology and diabetes. There, it became “very clear” to her that diabetes was a “growing epidemic … disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic communities,” and she knew she wanted to dedicate her career to this problem. According to the American Diabetes Association, compared to non-Hispanic White Americans, African Americans have a 77 percent higher risk of getting diabetes while Latinx Americans have a 66 percent higher risk of getting diabetes.
After medical school, Golden trained and worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and in 2015, she was selected as the executive vice-chair for the Department of Medicine. Weeks later, however, protests in Baltimore, Md. erupted after the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in Baltimore Police custody after he was arrested for possession of a knife.
“I have a 15-year old son and I was terrified of him learning to drive,” Golden said. “Not because I thought he would get into a car accident, but because I was afraid he’d get pulled over and shot without cause … That’s not only a concern I have, but a concern the woman who cleans my office at the end of the night has … It’s concerns we have as mothers of Black sons.”
It was this realization that motivated Golden to create a seminar series called “Journeys in Medicine” that featured speakers from the John Hopkins Office of Diversity and Inclusion, including Golden herself. In 2016, this series evolved into a civic engagement initiative at Johns Hopkins that focused on promoting awareness of health inequities and how to provide opportunities to improve health equity. The kickoff event was a discussion focused on police-community relationships. Today, the initiative has resulted in programs and resources accessible to staff and community members, including e-Learning opportunities and cultural resources.
“We learned from our community [that] it was important to heal the strained relationship between the police and the community,” Golden said. ”It was important to share research results with the community … it was important to address cultural differences to enhance relationships and communication.”
This initiative led to Golden’s selection as Johns Hopkins’ Chief Diversity Officer in 2019, a position she holds today.
In this role, Golden realized a few weeks into the pandemic that Black, Indigenous and Latinx Americans were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. African Americans and Hispanic or Latino Americans have a COVID-19 death rate that is 2.8 times that of White Americans, while American Indians have a death rate that is 2.6 times that of White Americans. She felt her “worlds collide” as she further learned that diabetes — a disease she knew these communities are already more vulnerable to — is a risk factor in developing extreme COVID-19 symptoms, which may lead to death.
Golden explained that marginalized communities are often the subjects of implicit “healthcare provider bias,” where healthcare providers hold preconceived notions about members of marginalized groups which aren’t true and may in turn affect the quality of care these groups receive.
An example of this bias Golden offered is a long-held false belief that Black people have higher pain tolerances, which often results in mismanagement of pain by their physicians. Healthcare provider bias leads to a distrust of healthcare providers among marginalized communities, Golden said, who feel that their trust has been “violated” by the medical community.
Historically, these communities were also underfunded by the government, resulting in neighborhood instability, a lack of green spaces, limited access to healthy foods and — in the context of the pandemic — tightly packed living spaces that often make social distancing difficult.
“It’s hard to undo 60 or 70 years of lack of investment in [marginalized] neighborhoods,” Golden said. “You see this vicious cycle — if you're set up already at high risk for diabetes but then you get COVID on top of that, then you're at risk of just having really untoward outcomes.”
After nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd over the summer, Golden felt torn between the pandemic “ravaging” her community and the civil unrest happening. She asked herself what she could do to address these inequalities and shared that while it can feel “daunting and overwhelming,” there are actions to take as individuals and as a collective community.
As individuals, Golden shared strategies that can be used to mitigate bias, including recognizing, labeling and challenging stereotypes and reciting a growth mindset and internal motivational messages. She explained that becoming “anti-racist” means moving out of a “fear zone” and into a “learning and growth zone,” which includes recognizing privilege and seeking out answers to uncomfortable questions.
As communities, specifically academic institutions, Golden said that protecting the vulnerable and forming academic and community partnerships are two important steps. At Johns Hopkins, her team strives to “communicate in culturally relevant ways,” such as displaying COVID-19 information on a truck that drove around her community playing music, a method of communication that resonates more than “Johns Hopkins telling you what to do.”
Her team has also worked to ensure that information about COVID-19 is available to all groups in the community through expanding language and technology services and providing access to translated documents.
At the end of the discussion, during a brief question and answer session, Golden discussed how to overcome COVID-19 “vaccine hesitancy,” especially among marginalized groups. Education that comes from “trust community messengers,” she explained, is crucial as well as finding personal motivations for vaccination.
According to Golden, whether or not to get vaccinated was a question of “what is tugging on your heart.” For her, this motivation came from her parents.
“They just turned 85 and I go help them every two weeks ... that’s the ‘heart pull’ that finally motivated me,” Golden said. “[First], get people there intellectually and then get them to the heart, get something they care about.”