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Black Lives Matter protests, racial health disparities discussed at SBU race divide session

Stony Brook University's "Bridging the Racial Divide" session

Stony Brook University's "Bridging the Racial Divide" session Thursday included discussing how to make the university a more inclusive campus, the Black Lives Matter protest movement, and the racial health disparities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Stony Brook University's "Bridging the Racial Divide" discussion Thursday was wide-ranging, spanning ways to make the university a more "inclusive campus community" to today's Black Lives Matter protest movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd, to racial health disparities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In this edition of the university's "Beyond the Expected" podcast on Facebook Live, Judi Brown Clarke, Stony Brook's chief diversity officer, questioned a panel of university officials: Carmen Gonzalez, assistant vice president for procurement; Zebulon Vance Miletsky, assistant professor of Africana Studies; and Dr. Jedan Phillips, a family medical specialist with the university's Department of Family, Population & Preventive Medicine. 

Miletsky, responding to Clarke's invitation to give his perspective on the state of "race relations and divides" today, said he had been "caught up, inspired and moved, and really touched by some of the events that have been taking place lately. As a historian, of course, I tend to think of the historical context that led up to this moment. Nothing comes out of the blue."

Of Floyd's death, after the white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on the Black man's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Miletsky said, "most people were struck by the inhumanity and just the sheer abuse of power that we saw with this particular killing of George Floyd. But of course, it's not an isolated incident and it's not the incident itself that has pushed folks out into the streets, has moved people to donate to causes, to support causes … It's the number of things that led up to that. And I think in any society you have a tipping point. And it's just that straw that broke the camel's back."

This showed people "there's something wrong in America … when something like this can happen," Miletsky said. But he saw hope because so many people said "that is not what America's about and we're better than that."

Miletsky also noted "we have been through some of these things before," citing the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, that then dovetailed with "Red Summer of 1919," where he said there were large number of lynchings, and "pogroms in a sense" where whites were terrorizing Blacks. And he said people took to the streets to "protest this kind of thing."

The podcast also discussed university efforts to attract racial and ethnic diversity in the vendors with which it does business. Gonzalez said the university was required, by state law, to have diverse vendors, the target now is 30%. "Stony Brook's done pretty good there," she said. But she added there were "challenges" to expanding the pool of diverse suppliers on Long Island.

Gonzalez said the university worked with the state's Empire Development Corp. to develop ways to get university contracts to minority-owned and women-owned businesses. "For us, having these requirements to use diverse suppliers encourages us as buyers to go out and work and find and source diverse suppliers. We are actively doing that." She said the state has given the university "leeway" to do "exclusive bids for diverse suppliers." 

Phillips, who also works with Stony Brook's Health Outreach Medical Education program, said the coronavirus lockdown had allowed the nation, in its stillness, to consider the impact of health care disparities on Blacks. "These problems that have affected African American and underserved communities of color are not new."

The doctor added: "It took 8 minutes and 46 seconds, on top of a pandemic, for people finally to say, 'Wow, this is horrible.' … I think that the pandemic has given us the opportunity and has given us a captive audience for people to finally understand what is going on, as far as the issues of health care disparities."

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