Feeling Out of Place Inside the Capitol
I’ m a 25- year- old black man who grew up in sight of the Capitol. Yet before last fall I had never set foot in the building. Doing so, to attend a health forum at which experts addressed federal funding in the treatment of a major disease, turned out to be an eye- opening experience, one that stays with me many months later.
Walking toward the Capitol was different that day. I’d passed the building countless times before without caring about what went on inside. As I rode the Metro that morning, I imagined people running around inside with briefcases full of paper, hurrying to their next meeting or news conference. I was completely wrong about what to expect. The halls were relatively quiet, and they seemed to be reserved for tourists.
As I walked through the metal detector, a black security officer asked where I was going. “ S- 207,” I answered. “ Really?” she replied. I asked her if she was surprised that I was going to this forum. I recall her saying, “ The people who came in before you weren’t that diverse.” I had assumed that there would be few nonwhite attendees. I was also prepared to be thoroughly searched and even interrogated, if need be. Having been stopped by U. S. Capitol Police officers once, for allegedly running a yellow light while driving home from high school, left me well prepared for the most extreme treatment. Hearing the observation of the officer at the detector confirmed my expectations of being one of the few black attendees.
Angry and anxious, I proceeded past the officers to the forum.
My family history comprises the full spectrum of success and failure within the American experience. However, I’m ashamed to acknowledge that I felt somewhat out of place.
The seat in which I sat seemed reserved for someone else, not a young kid from Southeast who went to Anne Beers Elementary School, Hine Junior High, Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast and eventually Temple University in Philadelphia. Knowing my enslaved ancestors helped build and finance the Capitol with their forced labor didn’t help my confidence, either. Yet somehow I knew, deep down, I had every right to be there.
I couldn’t help but notice that there were three other black people among the 60 people in the audience. That two arrived late and that one seemed to snooze through the event. That Latinos seemed scarce, too. And that all four panelists were white.
Why was there this gap in representation? Did any of the other attendees notice it? I know disparities exist in many forms everywhere we go. But that day it seemed to explain, particularly vividly, why there are gaps of injustice in medicine — and in American life in general.
The presentations and questions asked during the forum were interesting. At one point, in response to a question from an audience member, two panelists acknowledged that ethnic and racial disparities do exist. They said they were “ doing their best” to address the problem. The panelists seemed well informed and driven but disconnected from the community from which I have come.
As I left that morning, I felt relieved. I’m hopeful that my next visit to the Capitol will be a bit different.
Beltsville The writer is a program assistant at the nonprofit Education Network to Advance Cancer Clinical Trials. His e- mail address is lawrence. green@ enacct. org.