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Mike Bloomberg’s Commencement Address at the Howard University College of Medicine Honors and Oaths Ceremony 2021

The following remarks were delivered by Mike Bloomberg at the Howard University College of Medicine Honors and Oaths Ceremony on May 7, 2021. 

Thank you, President Frederick.

Hello, Howard MDs! Or, should I say, the 21 Savages?

It is truly an honor to join you today, and in person, no less. But enough with Zoom.

I also made sure I showed up extra early because I didn’t want Ms. English to mark me absent. I hear she can be pretty tough.

This is actually my very first public event since March of 2020 when I was here in D.C. to announce a new program that our foundation was starting to help mayors around the country deal with the pandemic, since they weren’t getting any help from Washington.

One of the mayors who participated is your mayor, Muriel Bowser. She really is one of the best mayors in the country. And as I’ve told her, I hope that someday soon D.C. will be a state and we’ll be calling her Governor Bowser.

Now, I know your families and friends wish that they could be here sitting with you. But even though they’re watching the livestream, they’re still bursting with love and pride right now. And I can tell you that from experience – because I’m a parent, even though you might not think I’m old enough to be.

So, together with your loved ones, let me say the most important words I can say today: Congratulations to the distinguished graduates of the great, and resilient, Class of 2021.

Now, I say resilient, because over the past year, you’ve come through three different crucibles: medical school, and all of its intellectual rigors; the pandemic, whose toll you witnessed firsthand as you worked on the front lines to save lives; and a reckoning – or at least the start of one – with America’s long history of racial injustice.

So the fact that you are here today says a lot about your character, your strength, and your commitment to helping one another. Because the truth is none of us accomplish anything by ourselves. All of us are here because others supported us, taught us, pushed us, and sacrificed for us. And no one deserves more credit for doing all of that than your parents and families, and I think they deserve a big round of applause from you.

But none of you would be here today if you hadn’t worked like crazy to overcome some very tough obstacles, like getting through Genetics with Dr. Washington. And passing O.S. I. And in the anatomy lab, you even survived The Great Flood of 2019.

What you’ve accomplished, seriously, is truly impressive: the academic expertise you’ve developed, the cutting edge research you’ve participated in, the clinical work you’ve done to help heal patients. And in the end, you successfully turned in your short white coats for the long white ones. Just don’t trip on the tails on your way to the Cloak & Dagger tonight.

And, while I know you’ll miss fighting the dental students for study space in The Dungeon, and grabbing a bite on Wing Wednesday at the hospital, today, you are officially Doctors. And so give yourselves a big round of applause, you deserve it.

While we’re at it: there’s another group that deserves a very big round of applause: your world-class professors who did heroic work inside and outside the classroom over the past year.

Now, for some of you, this is a lifelong dream fulfilled. Maybe as a kid, you were like my grandkids are now, playing with a toy doctor’s kit and checking grandpa’s blood pressure. I love those check-ups.

Or maybe you met the oncologist who cared for an ill family member with skill and compassion, and you imagined yourself doing the same.

Or maybe you saw in your own community a need for more doctors who looked like your parents and your aunts and your uncles.

Actually, that last reason is why I’m here with you today, and it’s what I’d like to talk a little bit about.

Last summer, when I decided to give $100 million split among the four Historically Black Medical Schools to make them affordable, I didn’t do it because I’m a nice guy – although I think I’m a pretty nice guy, we’ll see whether anybody else does.

I gave the money because I love our country, I believe in its promise, and because I was taught as a child that all of us have a role to play in battling the racial discrimination that was holding America back then, and is still holding us back now.

I saw an opportunity to help us tackle two of the country’s biggest challenges, which are glaring examples of where our history is hurting our future. I’m talking about the extreme racial disparities that exist in life expectancy, and in wealth.

When the average Black family in America has one-tenth the wealth of the average white family, that is unbelievable, and it’s a national disgrace. When life expectancy for Black Americans is six years shorter than it is for white Americans, that is also a national disgrace.

The fact of the matter is, these two things are related. And to solve either, we have to tackle both. The question is: how do we do that?

Well, at Bloomberg Philanthropies, we believe in following the data to solve problems. And here’s what the data told us: medical bills are one of the largest debt burdens within Black communities, which harms both wealth and health.

So, how do we reduce medical debt? Well, again, we looked to the data and we found that Black patients are 34% more likely to receive preventative care measures when they are seen by Black doctors. But, while 13% of the U.S. population is Black, only 5% of doctors are Black.

Okay, the data says we need to increase the number of Black doctors. How do we do that? Well, 25% of practicing Black doctors default on their student loans within 6 years, compared to only 11% of white doctors who default on their loans.

So if we can help you and other Black doctors pay off your loans, you can focus on why you wanted to wear that long white coat: to treat patients, cure diseases, save lives, and strengthen communities.

Of course, no amount of philanthropy is going to close all the racial gaps in health and wealth. It’s going to take a comprehensive effort led by government. But all of us have a responsibility to do what we can, and as the past year has tragically illustrated, those with the wherewithal to help need to step up to the plate right now.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I didn’t come from money, damnit. My father made $6,000 the best year of his life, and I took out loans in order to attend Johns Hopkins, just down the road in Baltimore, and I worked five days a week all year long at a campus parking lot to pay my tuition.

But I’ve always believed that the ultimate in financial planning is to bounce the check to the funeral home. So I’m trying to do that, and you’re helping me – I guess I should say thank you.

Our foundation’s gift to Howard grew out of work that we began last year that we call the Greenwood Initiative. I imagine most of you know the story of the Greenwood race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but too many Americans don’t know about it, or about all the other similar instances that deprived Black families of their homes, their savings, their jobs, and too often, their lives.

We are still living with the effects of generations of racial theft and violence, and that includes a COVID death rate for Black Americans that has been twice the rate of white Americans.

That national tragedy has shone a bright spotlight on the need to confront the long, lingering, and large-scale legacy of racial discrimination in America. So we are making an investment in your future because we believe that you are uniquely positioned to help to do it.

There’s another factor that contributes to the racial gaps in health and welfare that all of you are also uniquely positioned to challenge. It’s an epidemic that affects communities all over the country, and it devastates families of all colors, and all backgrounds.

Some of you may have a friend or a family member or a neighbor who has been a victim. Other countries have taken effective measures to stop it. But here, politicians bury their heads in the sand.

I could be talking about COVID-19. But, even after we get COVID under control, this other epidemic will continue to rage, if we don’t get serious about ending it. I’m talking, as you may have guessed, about gun violence.

I remember a doctor at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore telling me that the first time they see a patient with a gunshot wound, it’s typically in the arm. The doctor said it was likely he would see that same patient again, only the second time, based on his experience, often it would be a gunshot wound to the stomach.

And sadly, after two hospital visits, the doctor said he would likely see that patient a third time, but this time, the only thing they could do was to call the forensic pathologist.

It’s an absolute tragedy. And it’s also a racial justice issue that affects gaps in life expectancy and wealth. Because even though Black men make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population, they make up more than 50 percent of gun homicide victims.

At the same time, while domestic violence affects all communities, Black women are twice as likely to be fatally shot by a partner than a white woman. And, as we have seen all too tragically, Black people are more than twice as likely to be fatally shot by police than white people.

These disparities have profound implications not only for life expectancy, but also for Black wealth accumulation. A recent study here in Washington, D.C. found that for every 10 fewer incidents of gun fire in a neighborhood, one more business opened, one less business closed, and 20 new jobs were created.

Because when a gun is fired in a neighborhood, the bullet kills more than people. It kills jobs. It kills opportunity. And, by depressing home values, it kills household wealth, as well.

So the more gunfire we stop in a neighborhood, the more we can save lives and improve life expectancy, and the more we can help families prosper financially. I know it can be done, because we’ve done it.

In New York City, we cut the number of murders by 50 percent, and that helped us increase life expectancy by three whole years for all New Yorkers, and spread jobs to areas that had long lacked them.

Other cities have also made major progress. So this can be done, and all of you can help do it.

During your residency, and over the course of your careers, you may end up treating victims, or comforting their families, or working in communities suffering from the trauma.

I know it will be difficult, because, as Mayor of New York, I’ve been to too many funerals. I’ve seen too much grief in the eyes of too many survivors: parents, siblings, children.

It never gets any easier explaining to them what happened. And so today, I’m asking for your help, not only as doctors, but as citizens, and community leaders.

I’ve devoted a great deal of time and resources to this work over the past two decades. I’m glad to say that we’ve made some progress passing stronger gun laws and beating the NRA in states around the country, which no one thought was possible when we started.

A group I helped create, Everytown for Gun Safety, now has six million supporters. That’s a lot – but it’s not enough, and I’ll tell you why.

Right now, miles from here on Capitol Hill, we’re fighting to pass a bill that would strengthen background checks on gun purchases. It’s the best chance we’ve had to pass a bill through Congress in almost a decade, and I’m hopeful we’ll get it done. But I can tell you it’s an uphill battle, and we need more Americans to speak up and get involved.

So I hope you’ll join us in this movement, because this is fundamentally a public health issue, and we need more doctors to help explain that to everyone.

After all, Americans trust their doctors, and that trust can be a far more powerful thing than any medicine and it can save more lives than any prescription.

As you know, there’s a long history of America’s Black doctors taking on big public health issues and making an enormous difference for their communities and for the whole country.

I’d like to end by mentioning just one of them. Why? Because she was a Howard grad, and a professor here, too. And, she was a great New Yorker, I’m proud to say: Dr. Patricia Era Bath.

Dr. Bath was born and raised in Harlem. As a med student here at Howard, she organized students to provide health care to those in need during Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign back in 1968.

After that summer, she interned at Harlem Hospital and, by collecting data, she found that her Black patients experienced blindness at about twice the rate of whites. She was part of the first team to perform eye surgery at Harlem Hospital, and she became a trailblazer in her field, who held numerous patents for medical innovations and who showed how it really is possible to take on racial disparities in health care, and close them.

Two years ago this month, she died too young, at only 76. But all of you now have the opportunity to build on her legacy, by saving lives, pioneering new ideas, working for racial and gender equality, and making the country healthier, stronger, safer, and more just for generations to come.

I have great confidence that you’ll do just that, in big and exciting ways. And I’ve made a bet on it. But right now, you have another very important job ahead of you: celebrating.

So tonight, I hope you’ll have one more $20 margarita pitcher at El Ray, just don’t do it by yourself.

And tomorrow, I hope you’ll start helping to heal a country that urgently needs you. I know you’ll answer the call.

Thank you.

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