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Racism, Reid & Republicans…Can’t We All Just Get Along? January 11, 2010

Posted by Kate Ryan in Barack Obama, Democrats, Harry Reid, National Politics, Racism, Republicans.
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Years ago, when my daughter was 10 or 11, she was assigned to read a book about Langston Hughes – the early 20th century African-American poet and playwright – for Black History month.  She came to me one day to ask me about the terms “colored” and “colored people” that cropped up throughout the book. I explained that in the past, “colored” was a term used to refer to African-Americans.  That it was once acceptable, but now was considered perjorative, and that the correct term was African-American.  My daughter chewed on this for a while, then asked, “why isn’t everybody  a colored person?”

Surprised, I asked her what she meant.  She went on to explain that she knew lots of African-Americans and that were not one color; some were dark-skinned, some were brown, some were almost white.  That she had Indian and Hispanic friends that were brown.  That even she – a supposedly white girl – had a dark complexion (olive-skinned) as compared to me (white as a sheet).  “Can we be colored people?”, she asked.  It took a while to convince her that, no, we would not be colored people.

I was reminded of this conversation with my daughter this weekend when the flap broke over Senator Harry Reid’s comments about then-candidate Barack Obama – whom he described as a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”.  Reid’s comments were revealed in the new book, “Game Change” by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and were made to explain Obama’s acceptability to white America as an African-American candidate. 

Of course, Senator Reid’s gaffe has caused a great uproar among our friends on the right.  GOP Chairman Michael Steele said on “Meet the Press” yesterday that Reid should step down as majority leader.  Steele likened Reid’s comments to those of former Senator and majority leader Trent Lott wh was forced to resign in in 2002 when he commented that had virulent former segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948;  “…if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either,”  implying that the civil rights movement was a “problem”.  Not quite.  Steele also conveniently forgot that he was under fire in the same week for saying that he was an “honest Injun”, something Native Americans found a bit racist. 

The fact is that just about everyone from every background and every race and every political part of the spectrum is racist.  That is human.  There is a basic human desire to be better than someone else – especially if you’re on a lower socioeconomic rung  – hence the prevalence of racism and racist activity among the most impoverished communities of any race.  I challenge anyone out there to really examine themselves and what they have said and done over the years.  I doubt that there is anyone out there that has NEVER told a racist joke, uttered a cringing racial epithet, repeated and believed in some stereotypical characteristic, or fretted over the “advantages” that other races have over one’s own.  The 2004 film “Crash” illustrated this beautifully, showing white racist police officers, black racist thugs, hispanic racist drivers, and asian racist accident victims.  The film even showed an Iranian woman cleaning her store after it was vandalized saying, “Why do they call us Arab?  Don’t they know we are Persian?”   I find that the people I know that harbor the worst racist feelings are people who insist they’re not racist.  That’s usually because they have a black friend and never use the “N-word”.  

I know that I have worked very hard over the years to free myself from racist language and the like – and I still find that I fail at times.  But I also know that I believe in equality of opportunity for all Americans and I support politicians, policies, and programs that will help our nation succeed in that achievement.  Real racism is not found in the words that we use.  Real racism is found in how we treat each other; how we arrange our society in such a way that it fosters great success for one race but dooms another race to poverty and despair. 

People who support tax policies that obscenely benefit wealthy white people are probably racist.  People who oppose a woman’s right to control her own fertility, force her to have an uplanned or unwanted child, then abandon that child to poverty because they oppose social safety nets for single mothers are probably racists.  People that oppose equalized funding for education so that children from wealthy, usually white, communities get superior educations while children in the inner-city study from torn texbooks in crumbling school buildings are probably racist.  I could go on and on – but I’m sure you get the point.  I’m willing to bet that not all Republicans are racists, but most racists are Republicans.


The Breast Defense November 22, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Breast Cancer, Health Care, Public Health, Women's Issues.
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Ahem.  Now that I have your attention…

The American culture has always been absolutely obsessed by the breast.  As women, in may ways we define ourselves by our breasts; are they big enough, firm enough, round enough?  We alter our bodies with baggies full of synthetic material to get the perfect breast.  Our breasts are enormous parts of our sexuality and, at the same time, are de-sexualized as the means by which we nourish our children.  Our breasts are loved by men, hated by us, celebrated in art and culture, and glorified as the pinnacle of female perfection.  Is is any wonder, then, why the idea of breast cancer – and the possible resulting treatment of a mastectomy – absolutely terrifies the bejesus out of us?  Is it any wonder, then, why we can not look at the facts of breast cancer and separate it from all the pink-ribbon mythology?

Last Monday, The United States Preventative Services Task Force released new guidelines for breast cancer screening and caused the proverbial shit to really hit the fan.  The task force recommended that women – who have no risk factors for breast cancer – forego routine mammography until age 50 and follow-up with scans every two years.  These new guidelines are a radical departure from current practice.  Most women are sent for their first mammogram at age 40 and continue with annual screenings regardless of personal risk factors.  The reasoning behind the new guidelines was that when the entire body of evidence surrounding breast cancer is reviewed, routine screening before age 50 finds cancer in only about 1 out of 1900 patients.  This figure is consistent with the number of women who have very high risk factors for the disease.  The panel also found a high incidence of false positive test results, leading to more invasive screening, including biopsy, and a rise in patient anxiety and distress.

By Monday night, the news was full of contrary opinion.  Every breast cancer advocacy group was on TV shouting that these new guidelines would kill women.  There were reports from women who stated that had these new recommendations been the protocol their cancers would not have been found early and they would be dead right now.  The lone voice in the wilderness, it seems, was Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC, who urged calm and asked that people try to divorce themselves from the emotion of the issue and look at the science.  On Tuesday morning Dr. Snyderman again tried to urge dispassion on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, only to get caught up in the host’s near-hysterical argument that if his wife or daughter gets breast cancer 20 years from now and could have been saved by early screening, he will remember her words.  On Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius threw the government’s own scientists under the bus by stating that, “we will continue to test as we have been testing and will not follow these new recommendations for now.”

Is it possible to divorce the disease from American breast mythology and just look at science?  Not unless you can also divorce the science from the high-stakes research funding game and all the stakeholders in that game who need to keep their dogs in the hunt.  As I see it, that’s the real problem.

There is an enormous amount of research dollars that go to breast cancer – both public and private.  On the public side, breast cancer research is funded to the tune of $700 million per year (according to the National Institutes of Health).  This is more than Alzheimer’s Disease ($656 M), coronary heart disease ($397 M), stroke ($342 M), and lung cancer ($289 M) – yet women are more likely to be stricken and die from any of these other diseases rather than breast cancer.  In 2005, 88% more women died from coronary heart disease than from breast cancer.  The top five killers of women are, in order, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, lower respiratory disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.    Breast cancer comes in seventh – after accidents – but its research is funded higher than any of these.  Lung cancer, for instance, is extremely malignant in women, yet research is funded at less than half the level. 

The best things that breast cancer research has brought us is the identification of risk factors.  Chief among these is that there is a genetic component – 5% to 10% of all breast cancer are gene-related.  Also, having a first-degree relative with the disease is a known risk.  Other benign breast disease, early menstruation, late menopause, childlessness, and high-fat diets are also known as risk factors.  Women with a multiple of risk factors are the ones most likely to benefit from early screening – and there is nothing in these new recommendations that will prevent this.

I had my first mammogram at age 4o.  I am 47 now and have not had another since.  Why?  Because my personal risk factors and lifestyle do not indicate that I will become a victim of this disease.  My doctor and I have discussed this and she agrees that I probably would not benefit from more screening.  What I – and my doctor – seek to prevent is heart disease and stroke, which have been the biggest killers of women in my gene pool.  Does this mean that I will never get breast cancer?  No, but it means that we have looked at the risks to my health and have decided to get the most bang for our buck looking elsewhere.

That is what these new guidelines are all about.  Every woman, and man for that matter, needs to be able to personally develop a screening and treatment profile that best benefits them as an individual.  Health care is not a game to see what disease or what agenda will receive the most funding, and breast cancer should not be elevated above all other women killers because of the personal and sexual nature of the disease.