Social Justice and Our Social Health

Death is inevitable.

 It seems a macabre statement to make, but the truth of it cannot be denied. We public health and medical professionals spend our careers studying all manners of physical and mental maladies in an attempt to thwart them. Treat them. Cure or eradicate them. But death is inevitable.

And so we attempt to live the healthiest lives possible. We give up saturated fats and processed sugar. We eschew red meat and load up on organic leafy greens. We hit the treadmill on our lunch breaks. We lift. We spin. We Zumba. Well, at least some of us do. But death is inevitable.

Life is to be lived, and so we make friends. We marry. We raise children. We build communities of friends and family. We do those things that society expects of us as we move through adulthood. At least some of us do. We do all these things with the expectation that our lives will be fulfilling and long.

We public health and medical professionals concentrate on life and health in the face of death. We debate the value of immunizations and flu shots. We go to war with Ebola and malaria. We face off against depression and schizophrenia. But all too often we neglect the social health of our communities.

Social determinants of health are not only our access to educational and economic opportunities and adequate health care services, or our ability to live in areas free of toxicity and violence, but also our social cohesion. I was trained to think of health as a social justice issue, and I was raised to believe that social justice – challenging injustice, valuing diversity and ensuring the well-being of those most in need – was an essential element of living a healthy life. I would posit that our community, our American Muslim community, is largely socially unhealthy. And not necessarily for lack of trying. We vote. We think tank. We convene and debate policy. We wrap ourselves in indicators of success and then we relax. And still, death is inevitable.

But murder? Murder is incomprehensible.

A number of think pieces have been written over the past month in response to the murder of three American Muslim students in Chapel Hill, NC. The outpouring of grief is palpable, and the tension and anxiety, and even the anger, is expected. If we are not jaded, then we are baffled by the lack of national news coverage or the framing of this atrocity, in which a terrorist and a thug by any other color is painted as a lover of animals only frustrated by a lack of parking. We tweet, we hashtag, we raise funds, we demand statements and disavowals and answers. And in moments like these, and only in moments like these, do we attempt to connect our pain with the pain of others seeking justice. In these moments we remember and are reminded that senseless killings like these are not endemic to the American Muslim community – they have been and still are a painful thread woven into the fabric of communities of color, as much a part of the fabric of this country as baseball and apple pie. Inevitably, these moments pass. And if we as Muslims separate ourselves from this thread, or even insist that the tensions and pains we have experienced under the guise of Islamophobia are new or unique, then we fail at social cohesion. We fail at empathy and we exclude ourselves unnecessarily and to our own detriment. And we place Latino Muslims and Black Muslims, like myself, in an untenable position. We give the impression that we value some lives more than others. And perhaps we do.

Perhaps we are not willing to admit the prejudices that infect our American Muslim communities and splinter and divide us, or the prejudices that isolate us from other aspects of society. I would be remiss not to mention that there are multiple Muslim led organizations and movements that operate from a place of social justice and revolutionary love – they operate in their neighborhoods and work for the benefit of those in need regardless of faith, gender, race or class. But they are the exception in our community, and not the rule.

I have no solutions; this is not an academic piece. This is the voiced concern of one public health professional imploring others dedicated to building healthy communities to give voice to social health. To make social justice part and parcel of the work you do. To have conversations amongst your colleagues and those you serve. American Muslim Health Professionals (AMHP) has the opportunity to make space for that, not for political gain or because it seems like the right thing to do, but because the health of our community depends on it.


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