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Thursday, September 24, 2020

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30 Years Later: My Last Collegian Op-Ed

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Back in the late 1980s when I was a student at the University of Richmond, I wrote op-eds for The Collegian. They were dreadful. My teenage self is literally unrecognizable to middle-age me today. These hyper-partisan, right-wing, religiously evangelical op-eds were naive, inflammatory, attention-seeking and included numerous instances of implicit bias (stereotypical thinking).

Implicit bias is the polite term for our unconscious attitudes and assumptions that can and often do harbor elements of racism, sexism and homophobia. If anyone wants a sense of what my op-eds were like back in the late 1980s, you can listen today to radio personality Rush Limbaugh, read author and pundit Ann Coulter and watch TV hosts such as Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson

Most of all, my op-eds revealed ignorance, privilege and an insensitivity to those who were trying to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment at UR. I was blind to my blind spots. As such, my op-eds were part of the social and cultural problems at UR 30-plus years ago. I sincerely and humbly apologize for these writings. I hope that those I hurt and offended through my words and ideas, then and now, will forgive me. I am very sorry. 

A major part of my being an adult and a professor at UR since 2002 has been the opportunity to try to atone for many of the mistakes and thoughtless actions of my college career, especially my embarrassing op-eds. As shown by my work at UR over the last 20 years, I am a very different person from my teenage self. I doubt most people stand by every opinion and belief they held 30-plus years ago. 

Many people lose their childhood faith when they grow up, while others become religious toward the end of their lives. Lots of people’s politics evolve over time based on their life experiences and the different people they come to meet. People change. I have — tremendously. We learn from and grow through our experiences. 

Ultimately, I changed because I was exposed to new ideas and new people, exposure which is at the core of the educational mission at UR and other universities. I was a student. Through the process of learning my worldview became transformed. Indeed, the change was so profound that I have given most of my adult life to research and teaching precisely because I know firsthand the power of learning and being mentored by others. 

My faith remains important to me, but it is not the politically oriented, angry, judgmental and fear-driven faith of my youth. It’s different, like most everything else about me. In the end, the liberal arts education I received at UR three decades ago enabled me, eventually, to become a different person. 

Fortunately, by the time I was a senior at UR in 1990, I had already begun the process of shifting my interests to issues like health care and public health. These seemed to be worthier and more interesting subjects to prioritize and for which to advocate than the partisan and cultural issues I had written about in my op-eds. This path — new for me then and which I’m a long way down today, 30 years later — was the result of a number of key educational experiences and personal influences: 

First, after I graduated from UR, I got an internship for a British politician who worked closely with and supported the British National Health Service (NHS), a government-run and financed health care system. Based on my very anti-government beliefs at the time, I thought the NHS was going to be a disaster. It wasn't. The more I researched and visited parts of the NHS, the more I was impressed by it. 

Everyone had access; nobody was excluded; it reduced health disparities and inequities; patient outcomes were good overall; and the system didn't cost nearly as much as health care did in the U.S. Moreover, the British public genuinely adored the NHS and fully supported it. This was a revelation to me. 

Second, when this internship ended, I returned to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in political science. Living as a low-income, lower-caste graduate student impacted my thinking about life in general and how much harder it is when one's parents aren't paying all the bills. The experience humbled me. 

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Third, I got an internship for President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and ended up doing research on Medicaid. Medicaid may be the ultimate portal through which to see structural inequalities and racial health disparities in the U.S. I began to think more critically about why health care wasn't deemed a human right in the U.S. when it was in other high-income countries. My views and opinions continued to evolve. 

Fourth, this new thinking led me to work on behalf of President Bill Clinton's healthcare reform effort in 1994. At this point, I was part of a Democrat-sponsored health care reform project. I was collaborating with researchers who educated me on the social and environmental determinants of health. For the first time, I learned how generational health disparities by race and class contributed to huge differences in life expectancy, disease patterns, birth outcomes, maternal mortality, asthma rates and overall health. These statistical realities challenged my presumption that opportunity was, for the most part, relatively equal for everyone in the U.S. The data clearly showed it was not. My views kept evolving. 

Fifth, I spent the latter half of the 1990s researching and writing my doctoral dissertation on the elusive quest for universal health insurance coverage in the U.S., and the human consequences for its failure. 

Sixth, I finished my doctorate degree and traveled to the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health in 2000 to study mental health care and policy for two years with the National Institute of Mental Health. Researching mental health needs in the U.S. revealed even greater racial and socioeconomic disparities when it came to need for and access to care. The affluent, who have extensive resources, can get excellent mental health services and treatment, while those with limited means can and frequently do fall through all the cracks in our healthcare system, with tragic outcomes. 

Seventh, two things converged between 2005 and 2010 that considerably impacted my personal and professional outlook. In 2005, I read the book "Mountains Beyond Mountains" about Dr. Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health organization that works on behalf of global health equity. I reread it several times. It emphasized the concept of "structural violence," which is something of a public health term for "institutionalized racism." I used the book in one of my courses and it so impacted my students and me that we all took a UR-funded field trip to Peru to learn from a public health nongovernmental organization over spring break. I spent my entire 2008-9 sabbatical researching and working in a free health clinic in Peru. I continued to learn and change. 

When I returned to the U.S. in summer 2009, I joined the Democrat efforts for comprehensive health care reform that resulted in the passage of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in 2010. I've been studying, researching and volunteering on behalf of the ACA ever since, mostly joining larger legal efforts to keep it from being repealed or struck down by the courts. Spending this time and effort on the ACA has continued to impact me as a professor and as a human being. 

Finally, I spent the spring semester of 2016 on the Semester at Sea program, researching and then teaching a comparative politics and policy course that focused on the history of colonization and decolonization from Hong Kong to Vietnam, Myanmar, India, South Africa, Ghana and Morocco (the ship’s itinerary). This course contributed significantly to my knowledge of racism, injustice, protest, truth and reconciliation. While teaching on this program, I learned from and then assigned works by writers such as Frantz Fanon

After returning to the U.S. and following the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2017, I organized two big conferences at UR in fall 2017 and 2018 on the history of bioethics and race and on the racial politics surrounding health care policy in the age of President Donald Trump. I still teach the content of the Semester at Sea course at UR every year as my spring first-year seminar “Global Studies and Public Policy.” As a result, I’m continually teaching and learning about structural inequality, racism and caste systems around the world (not just in the U.S.). 

In conclusion, I often draw upon this long strange trip that has been my life when I’m teaching UR students today. I know they are on their own journeys of figuring things out for themselves like I was 30-plus years ago. For obvious reasons, I have a lot of empathy and patience for them and try to help them as best I can. 

Meanwhile, I find myself wondering: What am I doing, saying and writing today that I will be shocked by and ashamed of 30 plus years in the future? Whenever I think I may have spotted something like this in my life, I try to stop or change it accordingly. I’m hoping to have fewer regrets the older I get...

Sincerely,

Rick Mayes

Contact political science professor and healthcare studies program coordinator Rick Mayes at bmayes@richmond.edu.  

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