Panel discusses origins of racism and its lingering impact

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. -- Community Grand Rounds, an organization founded by Spectrum Health Lakeland in 2018 to address racial disparities locally, hosted its first of a three-part series, "Hidden History: Understanding the Origins of Racial Inequity,"  where panelists discuss the origin of slavery all the way through post-reconstruction.

The purpose, one organizer said, is to help people understand the implications these events have on society today – even if they weren’t directly involved with that history. 

“I would run into many people who would say, ‘I had nothing to do with this, I didn’t create this’ and it became clear that all of us need to better understand how we got here,” said Lynn Todman, PhD, Vice President of Health Equity at Spectrum Health Lakeland. 

Todman, who also serves as a St. Joseph city commissioner, said a catalyst for discussions locally has been the calls for social justice amid the pandemic.

St. Joseph residents themselves hosted a unity march in the wake of the killing of George Floyd – thousands walking side-by-side with Benton Harbor residents through the Twin Cities. 

“If you’re in St. Joe, you can on average expect to live to about 85 years old, but if you cross that bridge into Benton Harbor it’s closer to 69,” said Todman. “It’s not like the DNA of the people changes when you cross the river.”

The contrast between the Twin Cities, she said, shows the reality of structural racism’s lasting impact hundreds of years later.

But it isn’t irreversible, and these discussions make the difference.

“It’s really important that we take the personal out of it and that’s why I focus on the structural nature, there are many people who have no explicit racist intent but we’re embedded in systems that create advantage for some based on race and disadvantages for others,” said Todman.

The second part of the series continues virtually May 11 with a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation.

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