Beyond Thoughts and Prayers – What Can We Do to Stop Gun Violence?

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Things may finally be changing in the United States as we search for strategies that will stem the terrifying tide of mass shootings in the country. 

The percentage of Republican-identified adults in the U.S. supporting stricter gun laws has increased by 15 percent in the space of a single year. From 35 percent in 2021, that number has now reached 50 percent. In addition, 43 percent of self-declared Republicans believe inadequate gun regulations are to blame for mass shootings. Only 27 percent of Republicans cited “loose gun laws” as the reason in 2021. 

The USA Today/Ipsos poll was published on June 7, 2022, two weeks after a teenage gunman took the lives of 19 students and two teachers in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. One survey respondent said that, although he remains “pro-gun,” in the wake of Uvalde and other recent mass shootings he is now more open to the idea of some regulation. Specifically, background checks and waiting periods for gun sales.  

Despite the gain in Republican support for sensible gun control measures, a yawning gap remains between the two parties on the issue. The percentage of political independents who blame lax regulations for mass shootings increased to 64 percent in 2022, over 55 percent the previous year. Among Democrats, 86 percent put the major blame on loose regulation.  

Spare Us Your “Thoughts and Prayers” 

We’ve heard the refrain of “thoughts and prayers”—from politicians, members of the gun lobby, and others hoping to avoid a difficult, nuanced discussion—too many times after mass shootings. It’s been repeated so often that it’s evolved from a soothing platitude to an insult to the memories of those who have been killed as a result of gun violence, and to those left behind. Comedians commenting on our fractured society have even created film clips and memes satirically calling out the inanity of those three simple words.  

We’ve heard the anguished cries of parents of the children shot to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Some of us have read doctors’ reports of the horrific damage done by the shooter’s AR-style rifle. Gun violence, in the opinion of numerous physicians, has reached the level of a public health crisis. 

So, are we finally—after Sandy Hook, Parkland, Buffalo, and all the other mass shootings that have traumatized us as a nation—ready to do more than offer thoughts and prayers? Here are the options: 

Suggestions from Experts 

Experts, including the Center for American Progress, have offered a set of measures we can take to reduce the number of people killed by gun violence. These include mandating backgrounds checks before gun sales in any venue; banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; raising the legal age for gun purchases to 21; and instituting “red flag” and “extreme risk” orders in which a court can temporarily remove guns from people credibly judged as being in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.  

We can support evidence-based programs with proven track records of reducing gun violence in communities and among our youth. We also need to establish a gun culture based on the objective collection and analysis of public and community health data. We should both hold the gun industry accountable and draw on the collective knowledge of responsible gun owners to create effective solutions that don’t infringe on constitutional rights.  

We can require that gun permits be issued only to individuals who are properly trained and mandate that gun owners adhere to safe gun storage practices. Measures like these are part of building a culture of responsibility and respect for the lives and wellbeing of others. 

By the Numbers: Regulating Guns Means Fewer Deaths 

Statistics show that after implementation of a 1994 federal law banning AR-15s and other specified types of semi-automatic weapons, the number of deaths due to mass shooting events fell significantly. Even when taking the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School—the deadliest such event during the time the ban was in force—into account, the decade from 1994 to the sunsetting of the law in 2004 show dramatically lower average rates in both the total number of mass shootings and the total death toll.  

After the ban expired in 2004, there was almost immediately a sharp uptick in deaths from mass shootings. A numbers analysis for the years 2004 to 2017 showed an average of 25 deaths annually attributed to mass shootings. During the 10 years the assault weapons ban was in force, that annual average figure stood at only 5.3. Even in the years immediately preceding the ban, it only reached 7.2. 

This means that in the 10 years between 1994 and 2004, an individual American lived with a 70 percent lower risk of dying in a mass shooting than they would today.  

Will This Time Be Different? 

In June 2022, weeks after Uvalde, the United States Senate announced that it had reached agreement on a framework for new legislation to address gun violence. A group of 10 Republican senators, many of whom are vocal public supporters of gun rights and of the National Rifle Association (NRA), were in the bipartisan group of 20 involved. 

Proposed legislation as part of the framework includes stronger background checks for gun-buyers under 21; greater protection for victims of domestic violence who fear armed abusers; incentives for state-created red flag rules; and more money directed toward school safety and mental health.  

In addition, associated proposals would establish penalties for “straw” firearms purchases, in which one person buys a gun on behalf of an unnamed third party who might otherwise be ineligible. (It’s worth noting that the two teenage Columbine gunmen obtained their weapons through a straw purchase made by a friend.)  

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has become a vocal ally for survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state, described the proposed legislation as “a breakthrough moment.” Let’s hope so.  

Spotlight on Gun Violence: This Is Steve Kerr’s Eye-Opening Perspective

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When Steve Kerr was 18, his father died by gun violence. 

The devastation he felt as a teen bereft of a parent probably fuels a good part of the Golden State Warriors head coach’s commitment to speaking out on behalf of victims of gun violence and their families. It also explains his desire to hold elected officials fully accountable for their inaction on this issue. 

“Do something.” These are the words the now-56-year-old Kerr addressed to Republican politicians holding up common-sense gun legislation in the United States Senate on May 24, 2022. It was the day of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which a teen gunman took the lives of 21 victims. 

Kerr’s Father Was in Lebanon

In 1984, when Kerr was stateside as a student at the University of Arizona, his father was serving as president of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Lebanon was in the middle of a protracted, bloody civil war. No civilians—not even Americans with a degree of power and prestige—could be sure of residents’ safety. 

After numerous threats from militant groups, it was especially unsafe for Americans. Two horrific bombings targeting Americans happened in 1983. One, at the United States Embassy in Beirut, killed 63 people. The other, at a barracks housing an international peace-keeping force, killed nearly 300. 

About Malcolm Kerr

Steve Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr, had built a distinguished career as an expert on the history and politics of the Middle East. His own parents had also served at American University. The university and the world around it were intimately familiar to him from his birth, in 1931 in Beirut.

After spending three years as an AUB professor of political science, Malcolm Kerr did postdoctoral work under the renowned scholar Albert Hourani at Oxford University. He then went back to the US to serve for 20 years as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, taking whatever opportunities he could to spend sabbaticals in the Mideast.

While on a research grant to Cairo, he finished work on his most notable book, The Arab Cold War; Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958 – 1970. This work was notable for its author’s capacity to give agency to Arab leaders, rather than depicting them as simply driven by decisions made in the West.

In 1965, Malcolm Kerr, his wife Ann, and their children Susan and John, were living in Beirut. During this time, he was spending a year teaching once again at AUB. His wife gave birth to their third child, Stephen, on September 27. A fourth child, Andrew, followed after the family’s return to UCLA.

About Malcolm Kerr’s death

Malcolm Kerr’s “heart always belonged to Beirut,” Ann Kerr wrote after her husband’s death. Although the offer to take on the presidency of AUB amidst the tumult of civil war was obviously risky, it was the culmination of his life-long dream. He would be coming home. According to his family, he once said that the only thing he’d prefer to do over watching his son Steve play basketball was to “be president of AUB.”

It did seem to Ann and some other observers in 1984 that the furor of the civil war might be waning. For one thing, President Ronald Reagan’s personal representative to the Middle East, Philip Habib, had been gaining traction in reducing tensions in the region through shuttle diplomacy.

Malcolm Kerr took the opportunity. He assumed the presidency of AUB in 1982. He had been working in that position for 17 months when, on January 18, 1984, two gunmen shot and killed him right outside his office. The terrorist group Islamic Jihad claimed credit for his murder. Ironically, they had killed one of the Americans who knew and loved Arab civilization the most.

Reagan issued a statement mourning the loss of the distinguished scholar, condemning Islamic Jihad and vowing that the US would intensify its fight against terrorism. 

A Father’s Legacy

In the 2020 documentary The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan and the winning Chicago Bulls dynasty, Steve Kerr appears on screen to describe what it was like for him to play on that team, with which he earned three NBA championship rings in the 1990s. In his interview for the documentary, and in a 2016 interview with The New York Times, he took the rare step of talking publicly about his father’s death. 

Describing his father, Steve Kerr called him “an observer.” Malcolm Kerr gave his son the time and space to have his own experiences and to decide for himself how he would be in the world. That philosophy has informed Kerr’s approach to his position as Warriors head coach.

He said he tries to “give our guys a lot of space” and that he himself tries to only jump in to speak when he senses it’s the right time. It was also his father’s death, Kerr has said, that drove him to find his own form of therapy through sports, working out his traumas by giving his all on the court from his student-athlete days to the present.

Many of those who know his story believe it was his personal experience of sudden, senseless loss that helped Steve Kerr become the empathetic human being he is today. Clearly, he feels the losses of the families in Uvalde, Buffalo, New York, and Laguna Woods, California, as if they were his own. 

We’re all richer and better for the gifts Malcolm Kerr gave his son: The capacity to reflect with thoughtfulness, the courage to issue passionate calls for justice, and the commitment to always put people first. 

Remembering Black Football Players Who Integrated Their College Teams

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In 1923, Brice Taylor became one of the first-ever Black scholarship athletes at the University of Southern California. Taylor accepted a football scholarship, and began working with coach “Gloomy” Gus Henderson, first as a running back, then as an offensive guard. Taylor was also a member of the school’s track team that broke the world record in the 1-mile relay in 1925.

The University of Washington also admitted its first Black football player in 1923. Hamilton Greene played as a halfback, and became the first African American letterman at UW. It was during his first season that the UW Huskies went to the Rose Bowl, which, by the way, ended in a tie with Navy.

Taylor and Greene weren’t the first Black players on college teams.

Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, some colleges did admit African Americans to their playing rosters. For example, Frederick Patterson in the late 1880s became the first Black member of the Ohio State University football team. He would go on to become a noted entrepreneur and the first African American car manufacturer, with his Patterson-Greenfield model.

And in fact, the 1916 Rose Bowl was technically “integrated,” given Brown University’s one Black player as the team faced off against ultimate winners Washington State College. 

Slow progress

The pall of segregation had settled in across college sports by the 1930s. And historians note that it’s hard to pinpoint one single dramatic event in the integration of college sports afterward. It was really a process that proceeded by a series of slow starts as coaches at various schools became less cautious in the face of the Civil Rights movement, not to mention the talent they found among African American players.

Up until the 1960s, no college in a Southern state would admit Black athletes of any kind. But by the mid-‘60s, more schools began allowing their color barriers to be broken. Ricky Lanier became the first Black scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina in 1967, a year after basketball player Charles Scott became the first UNC Black scholarship athlete ever.

Those Black UNC scholar-athletes in the 1960s also had to address issues of pervasive racism. Small victories included the time they got together to speak to basketball coach Dean Smith and football coach Bill Dooley about the way the playing of “Dixie” before games made them feel. UNC removed the Confederate-era song shortly thereafter.

For some schools, integration of the student-athlete body came later. The University of Virginia allowed its first Black football players onto the field in 1970.

But this was still an era in which integrated teams were routinely required or persuaded to keep their Black players off the field when competing against segregated ones. Any school that believed in equality was often faced with the tough moral choice of benching some of its best players or being unable to allow any of its team to compete.

Getting on the right side of history

In 1970, the University of Alabama faced off in a home game against the integrated team from USC. The California team, with its Black players, beat the Crimson Tide so soundly that coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant decided it was time to move along with the times. The next day, he approached the school’s board of trustees, requesting that he be able to recruit African American players.

Alabama’s first Black scholarship football players were John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, who began playing for the team in 1971. Under Bryant’s leadership, Mitchell soon went on to become Alabama’s first Black assistant coach, before launching a National Football League coaching career.

Jackson later joined the San Francisco 49ers, and became National Football Conference Rookie of the Year in 1974. Traded to the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Commanders) in 1980, he was a member of the team when it beat the Miami Dolphins to win the Superbowl in 1983.

In April 2022, the University of Alabama honored both Mitchell and Jackson with the unveiling of a plaque on the outside of Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa. Paul W. Bryant, Jr., Bear Bryant’s son, was in attendance.

Today’s African American college scholarship players are more numerous than those earlier trailblazers. Now, about 18 percent of all male college athletes nationwide are Black. But across NCAA Southeastern Conference Football teams, more than 60 percent of players are Black.

Making their needs heard

And although these young athletes still face numerous hurdles in front of them, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped fuel their growing effectiveness in making their needs heard.

They have initiated boycotts in hopes of gaining substantive progress on issues of health, safety, fair compensation, and racial justice.

This new generation’s advocacy has forced legacy institutions of higher learning to confront deeply ingrained racist practices. An August 11, 2020 Washington Post piece by African American studies professor and sports podcaster Amira Rose Davis referenced the fact that the “house of cards” built by racism in college sports is poised to come crashing down thanks to massive social change and the ramifications of the global pandemic. We have to hope that any new system takes a look at the past to form a better future.

Missing Black Women and Girls Are Often Ignored by the Media

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When was the last time you remember seeing substantial coverage of a missing persons case or an unsolved homicide involving a Black woman or girl? Can you name a woman or girl of color whose missing persons case has received major media coverage?

In 2020, about one-third of all the women and girls listed in missing persons reports were Black. Yet census figures show that Black women make up less than 13 percent of the American female population.

As we see playing out every day across news reporting and social media channels, these are the cases that are all too often forgotten by law enforcement and the public. Meanwhile, most people can remember any number of extensively covered—and often highly sensationalized—cases involving white female missing persons and homicide victims. These kinds of narratives highlight the wide discrepancies in who, exactly, we as a society feel is deserving of care and protection.

Make no mistake, every missing person deserves attention and help. It’s just that right now, that attention and help is skewed so much in favor of supporting familiar, media-driven narratives that highlight the victimization of white women, that Black women and other women of color have become, for the most part, invisible.

Every missing person deserves our attention

Take the case of Gabby Petito. The popular vlogger was white, young, and blonde. When she went missing during a well-publicized cross-country van trip with her fiancé, journalists covered every new development in the case, and her image was splashed across countless international media outlets. In a tragic turn of events, Petito was found murdered. The FBI has indicated that her fiancé, later found dead, was the killer.

Equally tragic are the unsolved cases of the hundreds of Indigenous women who have disappeared over the past decade from around Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where Petito’s body was discovered.

“Missing White Woman Syndrome”

By the close of 2020, some 89,000 missing persons cases were active, and about 45 percent of these involved people of color.

Zach Sommers, an attorney and criminologist who researches how race, media, and law intersect, published a 2016 analysis of what late journalist Gwen Ifill first called “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

Sommers’ study involved noting the demographics of missing persons covered in four major media outlets over a year, and comparing that data with the FBI’s overall records of missing persons. He found that white females received close to half of all news coverage, although they represented only about one-third of the total number of missing persons. Not only did Sommers’ study reveal disparities in whether a missing person received any coverage at all; it also showed disparities in the amount and intensity of the coverage each missing person received.

The defenders

There are resources out there that challenge well-worn narratives about Black women and girls who go missing, offer information and help to families, and spark a larger public conversation and levels of awareness. 

The HBO documentary Black and Missing tackles the multiple issues entwined in this topic over a four-part series produced by Emmy-winning director Geeta Gandbhir and renowned journalist Soledad O’Brien.

The series focuses on the work of the Black and Missing Foundation, established in 2008 by a pair of sisters-in-law: Derrica Wilson, a former law enforcement officer, and Natalie Wilson, a public relations professional. The Wilsons’ goal is to fight against the ingrained apathy of law enforcement, media, and the public to bring attention to Black missing persons, male and female.

The documentary aims to probe just how deep specific and systemic racism in this country runs in its neglect of people of color who go missing, and its failure to listen to the pleas of their loved ones. But the series also inspires hope in its analysis of instances in which the foundation’s work has helped bring a number of cases to resolution and closure.

The website and podcast titled Our Black Girls, founded in 2018, operate with the same mission. Like the Black and Missing Foundation, Our Black Girls disseminates information on missing persons that includes photographs and identifying data across multiple media platforms.

Our Black Girls’ founder Erika Marie Rivers is by profession an entertainment journalist. She maintains the website on her own personal time, and driven by her own passion for justice. Rivers wants to highlight as many of these stories as she can, in hopes of prompting someone, somewhere, to reach out with information leading to a resolution. She maintains an intense schedule of producing an article every other day.

Rivers’ website presents the cases not only of missing Black women and girls, but of unsolved homicide victims, as well.

Many of the people Rivers is trying to trace simply disappeared while simply walking through their neighborhoods. “It could happen to me,” she told National Public Radio in 2021.

Often, missing women’s families reach out to Rivers just to thank her for calling attention to their loved one’s case, attention that hasn’t come from officials charged with investigation, or from the media. She also hears from people with previously unknown connections to missing persons or homicide suspects she’s covered.

All that any of these tireless activists wants is, in the words of the Black and Missing Foundation, “equal opportunity for all missing persons.”

And justice.

Brittney Griner’s Detention Shines Harsh Light on Russia – and the U.S.

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On February 17, 2022, Russian authorities arrested Brittney Griner, one of the most dominant centers in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), in an airport near Moscow on charges of drug possession. The Russian Federal Customs Service said it had found vape cartridges containing cannabis in her luggage.

Almost two months later, on Friday, May 6, Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, faced off against the Las Vegas Aces as the WNBA season started without her. She was still held against her will by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government.

The New York Times reported that the crime Griner is accused of, “large-scale transportation of drugs,” holds a possible sentence of 10 years in jail. The Russian state-owned news agency TASS has reported that Russia planned to detain her at least through May 19

Because Griner’s arrest and detention came just as Russia was moving toward its brutal invasion of Ukraine, news about her quickly stopped capturing many headlines. As of early March, all other WNBA players in Russia and Ukraine had left those countries.

Meanwhile, there were initially whispers that Griner’s family was quietly attempting to secure her release, amid requests to fans to refrain from anything too loud or too public that could endanger those efforts.

Fan support, slow-moving U.S. assistance

By mid-March, some 60,000 fans had signed a petition demanding that the U.S. government handle Griner’s situation with the same attention, care, and promptness that could be expected if the detainee were a famous white male athlete. In the eyes of many scholars and fans, Griner is certainly “the Tom Brady” of her sport.

On March 24, a representative from the American embassy in Moscow finally met with Griner. The follow-up report from the State Department said she was in “good condition” and that officials would continue to monitor the situation to verify whether she is being treated fairly. Her Russian attorneys also saw her on several occasions during the first months of her detention. Reports at the time additionally said that, should the Russians not have completed their investigation of Griner’s case by the May 19 hearing, her detention could be extended. 

On May 3, the WNBA announced that it intends to place Griner’s initials and her jersey number court-side at all its games. In addition, the league has assured the Phoenix Mercury of the assistance it needs to hire a replacement while Griner continues to earn her regular salary. She has, according to a March 5 WNBA statement, the league’s “full support.”

Also in early May, the United States State Department finally upgraded its official classification of Griner’s case to “wrongfully detained,” a good signal that the government is prepared to increase pressure on Russia for her release. Her agent has asked the State Department to “do whatever is necessary” to get her out.

The international circuit pays

The uninitiated might ask, “What was she even doing in Russia?”

Since 2015, Griner has played during the American off-season with the UMMC Ekaterinburg. Her skills have helped the team earn four EuroLeague Women championships, as well as three Russian titles. 

This answer tell us a lot about longstanding inequities in the current system of American women’s sports. Moreover, Black women consistently remain near the bottom of pay hierarchies. That’s what drives so many to Russia to supplement the income they’re not earning at home.

Numerous WNBA players, including some of the league’s biggest names, have often played in foreign countries, thanks to the fact that international leagues often provide larger paychecks than the WNBA’s. WNBA stars can easily earn more than $1 million a season on the international circuit, about four to six times what they earn in the United States.

An additional problem now is that the WNBA is making changes to its collective bargaining agreements and now directs players to make their (lower-paying) WNBA contracts a priority. 

Putting a lens on race, gender, and sexual orientation

At age 31, Griner is among the leading lights of the WNBA. She is a seven-time All-Star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

But would Tom Brady, or any white male American athlete with Griner’s skills and dedication to her sport, have met the same fate as she did? It’s a serious question, and more than a few journalists and activists are asking it. For plenty of Black Americans, as well as women and members of the LGBTQ community, the answer is “no.”

Writing in The Grio on March 8, journalist Ernest Owens certainly thought not. Owens wrote that Griner’s identity as a Black, queer, female athlete had everything to do with Russia’s detention of her. The country has a long and well-documented history of state-encouraged hostility to each of those groups. For example, under Putin’s orders, Russian officials have arrested and jailed LGBTQ individuals as part of an ongoing culture war against them. 

It’s also worth pointing out that the charges against Griner could have been manufactured as a means of making an example of her. It’s hard to believe that a major American sports figure who has been playing professionally in Russia in the off-season for several years now wouldn’t know of the country’s harsh drug laws.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has told the press that she believes Russian officials may have singled Griner out as a target. Other knowledgeable Americans, including former Pentagon official and Russia expert Evelyn Farkas, have speculated that Russia may want to use Griner as leverage against Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the U.S. 

Now that the State Department has issued a statement explicitly questioning the legality of Griner’s detention, it has assigned a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to the multi-agency team overseeing her case. This should mean that our government will become more hands-on in negotiating for her freedom.  A lot of us just want to know: what took them so long?

Madeleine Albright and the Guilt We Pile on Single Mothers

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Farewell to a Mother “Lion”

The world laid Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright to rest on April 27, 2022. The former United States Secretary of State and ambassador to the United Nations died at 84 on March 23. The Washington Post, calling her a “lion,” was among the many newspapers to celebrate Albright’s life and career of diplomacy as she stood in the vanguard of the fight for human rights around the world.

Some 1,400 people paid their respects to Albright at Washington National Cathedral. In President Joe Biden’s eulogy, he spoke of her “goodness and grace,” as well as her “humanity and her intellect.” These qualities, he said, fortified and sustained Albright as she “turned the tide of history” during the crucial years of the 1990s. She faced off, as Biden put it, against some of the world’s “toughest dictators.”

Hillary Clinton, who got to know Albright well when Albright served in the cabinet of President Bill Clinton, remembered her as not only a personal friend, but also a national hero. The two women spent cherished moments together sharing, among other things, pride in their grandchildren.

But for Albright, the years spent scaling the heights of power and fame was time spent living a life unknown to her male counterparts. As a mother largely responsible for her daughters’ wellbeing even before her divorce, the future first-ever female U.S. Secretary of State juggled family responsibilities with a series of increasingly demanding government jobs.

Unconditional Love, Gnawing Guilt

At her funeral service, her daughter Anne Korbel Albright, now a judge, remembered her and her sisters’ childhood. Their mother, she said, would get up hours before she needed to be at work, prepare the girls’ breakfasts and school backpacks, and work on her doctoral dissertation. The attention and care continued through years of taking her daughters on skiing trips, helping them sell Girl Scout cookies, writing them notes when they were at summer camp, and always answering the phone when they called. Even when they had grown up and had children of their own, Albright called them regularly.

Albright and her husband, journalist Joseph Albright, were divorced in 1982. This woman who squared off against Vladimir Putin in 2000 always felt sadness about not being able to save her marriage, saying that she would have given up her career in return. This woman who stood up for the rights of people in the Balkans to be free from the threat of murder, rape, and genocide confessed to feeling “guilty” about being a single mother who couldn’t stay home with her daughters.

Yet, as her daughter Anne remembered at her memorial service, she was “the best mom ever.”

Empathy and Solidarity

Madeleine Albright also never forgot her status as a child refugee, one whose family escaped, first, the Nazis who invaded Czechoslovakia, then the Communists who came to power there in the 1940s. Her tough-minded, focused empathy for victims of societal upheaval, particularly women and children, is as much a part of her legacy as the diplomatic agreements she concluded. She “never forgot where she came from,” said her daughter Alice Patterson Albright at the memorial service.

Madeleine Albright shared the experience of single motherhood with many women of color whom she never met, but with whom she would surely have empathized. The privileges afforded her by her position still could not have insulated her entirely from the anxieties known to single mothers everywhere.

The Special Burden of Black Single Motherhood

While life in any two-parent family doesn’t guarantee security, success, or even access to basic necessities, life in a lower-income single-parent family – particularly for children of color – is fraught with distinct obstacles to overcome.

Today, more than 4 million U.S. households are led by Black single women, and 40 percent of these households with working mothers and children under 18 live in poverty. Even though Black women as a group statistically attend college at a rate greater than any other demographic of women, they also consistently earn less in the workplace. Statistically, Black women make less than 90 cents for every dollar earned by Black men.

Many mothers of all backgrounds who raise their children alone face problems that include not only finding good-paying jobs, but also securing affordable, high-quality childcare and housing.

Yet, as a society, we ask a lot of Black single mothers, perhaps more than of any other group. As their families’ primary breadwinners often working low-wage jobs, these women also have to cope with the stresses of supporting their children’s educational goals while sometimes fearing for their safety in a world that often directs egregious hatred and violence their way. On top of that, we negatively stigmatize and stereotype Black single mothers, maybe more than any other group, then expect them to do the heavy lifting of proving those stigmas and stereotypes wrong.

Today’s African-American single mothers may often feel they can never measure up to media-driven ideals, especially those that one recent scholarly report summed up as “the Superstrong Black Mother.” Madeleine Albright could surely relate to that.

Albright’s Teachings and Writings Can Light Our Way to a Better World 

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A frightened young Czech girl who fled with her family as a refugee from Nazi Germany grew up to become one of the most influential women in the world as the first female Secretary of State of the United States.  

Madeleine Albright, who passed away on March 23, 2022, at age 84, left us a legacy of principled and decisive action that during the close of the 20th century helped tilt the world toward democracy. She also left us the rich knowledge of her four decades of teaching at Georgetown University, as well as several notable books giving insights into the extraordinary person she became and the pivotal events that continue to shape our lives. 

Prague Winter 

In Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (Harper, 2012), we get to meet the young Marie Jana Korbel, daughter of a Czech diplomat who instilled in her a passion for democracy and human rights. This book tells her family’s story, along with her own, culminating in her discovery of her family’s Jewish origins and what that meant to her.  

In these pages, she writes of the effects of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, focusing on relatives who survived or perished during the Holocaust. (Three of her grandparents died in concentration camps.) The book, in the words of a review published in the magazine of her alma mater, Columbia University, may just be “the most poignant account we have in English” of the disasters meted out on Czechoslovakia at the hands of, first, the Hitler regime, and second, the Soviet-backed Communists who took over in 1948.  

Little “Madlenka” was not yet 2 years old when Hitler invaded Prague. Her family fled to London, and her father, Joseph Korbel, began leading the radio broadcasts from the Czech government-in-exile. Exiled Czech leaders were frequent dinner companions at her family’s table, giving the young girl a first-hand view of diplomacy. 

Her family endured the Blitz, the bombings of the British capital by German warplanes, alongside their new neighbors. Albright’s parents hoped that a Western-style democracy would be restored in Czechoslovakia, so they returned after the war. But within three years, their homeland fell behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. From Yugoslavia, where her father was serving as Czech ambassador, the Korbel family made their way to the United States and settled in Denver, Colorado, where her father accepted a post teaching international politics. 

Marie Jana changed her name to Madeleine and became a naturalized American citizen in 1957. Two years later she completed her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and married Joseph Albright, heir to the Medill publishing dynasty. They would become the parents of three daughters before their divorce 24 years later.  

Albright earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia and developed her language skills to the extent that she needed no interpreter when meeting Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1997. She also spoke fluent Czech and English. She worked in the Jimmy Carter administration as an employee of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in the 1970s and as the American ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton. She was unanimously confirmed as US Secretary of State in 1997, serving until 2001.  

Madam Secretary 

In her memoir Madam Secretary (Perennial, 2003), Albright focused on those years representing her adopted country on the world stage. Just as she had demonstrated as UN ambassador, she proved to be a tough-minded but optimistic advocate for democracy and American interests abroad as Secretary of State. “You cannot stand by,” she wrote, while “terrible things happen.”  

Under her leadership, the US defended the values of freedom and human rights, intervening in bloody ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere. Notably, she advocated for military intervention in the cause of alleviating human suffering. In 1999—after diplomacy failed—she moved NATO to institute a bombing campaign against the military forces of Yugoslavia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, that were subjecting Kosovo to genocidal “ethnic cleansing.” Kosovo Albanians, who still consider her a hero and friend, met the news of her death with public mourning. 

During her tenure, Albright promoted the causes of nuclear non-proliferation, the stemming of climate change, normalization of relations with Vietnam, expansion of the Oslo Accords to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, NATO expansion to include Czechoslovakia and other nations of the former Soviet bloc, and the fostering of vibrant free markets and civil societies across developing nations. Her policies were based on her personal experiences as a child fleeing dictatorship and repression. Her moral compass told her that one must never appease a tyrant.  

Her book also discusses the challenges associated with being the first female Secretary of State in a male-dominated diplomatic world. An outspoken woman of strong character, she was a fierce advocate for the importance of women’s voices. “Ask questions,” she told women. After years of developing her strength to speak out, she said, “I am not going to be silent.” 

The last warning, and a lasting legacy 

In her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning, Albright used that voice and her decades of in-depth experience to give us what amounts to her cumulative words of wisdom as we confront new monsters of totalitarianism in the 21st century.  

Noting the rise of strongman authoritarians to public office around the world—including in the US—she recounts her first-hand knowledge of the fascist mindset, the temptations it offers to many, and the tragedies that result when it comes to power. Albright defined fascism less along strict ideological terms and more as what she described to an interviewer as a way of “taking and holding power.” She outlined how fascists exalt one aggrieved group at the expense of scapegoating and demonizing others, fomenting chaos and violence that are then used to tighten control on the reins of power. 

In a way that is both her warning and her legacy to us, Albright demonstrated in this book, and her final interviews and teachings, that the fight for human freedoms she waged with such devotion over her long life is now ours.  

How Putin Is Introducing a New Generation to the Horrors of Dictatorship

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In a dictatorship, one person holds near-absolute power over the government and its functions. A dictator rules virtually at will, unchecked by constitutional limitations. The ruler’s elite group of officials or oligarchs caters to his every whim, regardless of the results of the cruelty to ordinary citizens. Often, the cruelty itself becomes the point, as it instills terror, fear of the unknown, and a sense of wanting to conform to expectations, all instituted as a means of control. 

Most people are familiar with the dictators and tyrants of history, from Caligula of ancient Rome to the 20th century’s long list (Italy’s Mussolini, Germany’s Hitler, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Uganda’s Idi Amin, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi). Today’s most notorious dictators include Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. 

Putin’s brutality didn’t start yesterday 

Ukrainians have suffered horrific losses at the hands of Putin’s ill-trained, undisciplined, and violent military, highlighting what results from the unrestrained actions of a dictator. With more than 4 million Ukrainians having fled their country, more than 6 million others internally displaced, and thousands of civilians killed, Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine has produced irreparable tragedies, large and small, and trauma that will linger for generations.  

However, Putin has been flexing his power for decades. Russia’s actions supporting Assad’s dictatorship in Syria have made that conflict even more untenable for civilians since 2015. He has staged brutal interventions in Georgia and Chechnya as well as previous actions against Ukraine.  

Due to censorship and threat of arrest or worse, the Russian people are even more limited in their ability to get accurate news about the situation in the rest of the world and express anything but support for the war. Hundreds of thousands fled Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.  

Rethinking how we see the world 

While Putin is cut to order from the catalog of dictators in terms of his personality, goals, and policies, he stands out in one way: With about 93 percent of living Americans born after 1945, he is largely the only dictator this generation of Americans has seen as a constant presence on their TV screens—and as a constant menace to the safety and security of the entire world.  

For many Westerners, especially those brought up in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st, the horrific events of the Second World War were behind us. As we are learning, however, they can happen again at any time. 

Remembrance and awareness 

To be clear, there’s no comparing any contemporary dictator to Hitler, whose genocidal regime systematically killed 6 million Jews across Eastern Europe, along with millions of Roma and Sinti people, people from Slavic countries, and religious and sexual minorities.  

It’s also important not to forget the ongoing killing of innocent civilians caught in, for example, the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, or Myanmar’s genocidal persecution of its Rohingya minority. Authoritarians, dictators, and would-be dictators, individually and collectively, are responsible for these atrocities.  

Yet the status of Putin as a dictator is new to this generation in several respects. 

Putin gathers power for himself alone 

Putin’s careful cultivation of Russian oligarchs beholden to him for their wealth and his ability as a former KGB agent to use his sophisticated security services as a tool of repression and terror allows him to rule almost unchecked within Russia’s borders.  

Technology enables rule by chaos 

Russia’s command of 21st-century communications technologies, coupled with its deep generational experience in creating and spreading disinformation, enables it to reach ordinary citizens of other countries worldwide, influencing opinions and public policy.  

A turning point for the world 

And now Putin alone has broken the carefully balanced world order that was established after the defeat of Hitler in the Second World War. Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine—a sovereign nation recognized by every credible international organization—as a means of conquest and control has been accompanied by heartbreaking reports of gratuitous violence toward civilians. His actions affect not only Ukrainians, but all of us, thanks to long-range reverberations through global markets and political systems. 

Clarity via cell phones and attention 

We also see this dictator more clearly due to circumstance. With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, where the mass of mobile communications technology far exceeds that of the other nations mentioned, this generation of Westerners is seeing atrocities documented in real time. And yes, Western media outlets are paying more attention to this particular conflict in “civilized” Europe, where they often neglect the brutality seen every day in other parts of the world. 

Personal rule 

Exiled Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has publicly called for other billionaires and government officials who have fled the country to break with Putin once and for all. However, he also sees little chance of these billionaires being able to change Putin’s mind.  

“Russian power is not an oligarchy,” he told CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria on April 3, 2022. “It’s a dictatorship.” The powerful men we in the West call oligarchs are simply agents of Putin, he said, “amassing wealth and worldwide influence at his pleasure, in ways that serve his interests.”  

There is no practical way in which these members of his inner circle can hold sway over Putin, but according to Khodorkovsky, denouncing him is the only way these influential figures can demonstrate they do not support him.  

Khodorkovsky and a handful of other highly successful businessmen earned their “oligarch” reputation in the 1990s. They made their fortunes after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the privatization of formerly state-run enterprises, gaining influence over President Boris Yeltsin. But that was when Russia was a more pluralistic society. Now, Putin has scrapped the notion of any sort of mutually beneficial relationship between the ruler and his court. He has emerged as a dictator who will brook no contradiction.  

Caught in his own trap 

If there are a few rays of hope—besides the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people against his tyranny—it’s that Putin, in the words of University College London professor Brian Klaas, has succumbed to “the dictator trap.” Writing in the Atlantic on March 16, 2022, Klaas said that dictators eventually fall victim to the same systems of repression, terror, and distrust they create to aid their hold on power.  

Most dictators, far from being all-powerful strongmen with long-range plans, often make colossal strategic errors of the type usually corrected in well-functioning democracies. The fear the dictator instills in his enablers and citizens means he doesn’t receive honest assessments of problems and solutions. He can’t trust anyone around him, so he isolates himself more and more. And when he’s that alone, his ego and his “vision” for the future only grow more gargantuan. In the end, there’s no one to save him from the consequences of his arrogance. 

We might also take comfort in the thought that, if Putin is the worst dictator our generation has seen, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine is by far the best leader, statesman, and inspirational speaker. Both seem to be made—and matched—for their time.  

What “Correcting” for Race in Medicine Gets Wrong

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The best comedians can help us understand complicated social issues. In 2014 Amber Ruffin made history as the first Black woman to join the writer’s room of a major late-night TV show when she began working on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Today, she hosts The Amber Ruffin Show on NBC, where her regular “How Did We Get Here” segments have analyzed complex, historically rooted topics digestible for a popular audience—with the added benefit of Ruffin’s whimsical and pointed wit.  

On March 18, 2022, Ruffin’s topic was medical racism. Specifically, what medicine and medical research call “race correction.” Most Americans haven’t heard of this common practice, but it has affected the quality of the health care provided to many millions of us for generations.  

As Ruffin correctly summarized it, “race correction” involves the adjustment of medical calculations based on the race of the patient. This might sound innocuous, but for Black Americans, it can be disastrous. 

Errors built on racism 

While professionals use race correction in calculations involving many parts of the body, Ruffin used our pandemic-fueled familiarity with respiratory conditions to explain. She and her writers did a lot of research, uncovering how, for generations, doctors have assumed that Black patients have a smaller lung capacity than white patients.  

Enter Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who in the mid-19th century dedicated himself to investigating the “diseases and peculiarities” of Black people. It was Cartwright who invented and popularized insulting and ridiculous medical conditions such as drapetomania, the “mental illness” that caused enslaved people to try to escape from servitude. This disease, wrote Cartwright in 1851, was unknown to physicians but well within the knowledge of “our planters and overseers.”  

Another “disease” conjured up by Cartwright explained the “laziness” of enslaved people. The major symptom of this condition was lesions on the back. As Ruffin told her audience through gritted teeth, “I wonder how they got there.” 

Cartwright also set out to measure the difference in lung capacity between Black and white individuals. He used the spirometer, a breathing measurement device invented in the 1840s by British surgeon John Hutchinson. Today’s spirometer is a relatively simple device: a patient breathes into a tube, and the air pressure lifts a ball up into the tube’s chamber. This device can also be used by patients recovering from conditions such as pneumonia to keep their lungs healthy.  

Cartwright decided that people of color had a lower lung capacity than white people. This incorrect idea persists to this day, causing numerous physicians to make a “race correction” in their use of the spirometer, due to the allegedly 10 percent to 15 percent less effective lung power of Black patients.  

The real causes 

Hard data to back up the assumption that race influences lung capacity is scanty. What we can be sure of is that structural racism influences where a person lives and the quality of health care they have access to, with Black Americans often living in more highly polluted and less well-resourced areas.  

Medical journal The Lancet published an entire article on this topic, asking whether “race-adjustment” of spirometer readings only serves to increase racial disparities in COVID recovery rates.  

Most likely, the article said, the fact that people of color suffer COVID infection rates at three times those of whites and a death rate as much as twice as high is due to structural inequalities. The authors predicted that long-term tests of post-COVID lung function will reveal similar disparities. Used extensively to measure lung function during COVID recovery, spirometer reading outputs come with automatic “race corrections” that often go unnoticed by the physicians using them.  

As Ruffin summed it up, there’s little evidence showing that race affects lung health but abundant data showing that “racism could.” If a doctor believes a lower-than-normal lung capacity in a Black patient doesn’t signal a problem, that doctor may not order potentially life-saving diagnostics and treatment for severe respiratory illnesses. As Ruffin put it, “all those small decisions add up.”  

Short-changing women of color 

The comedian-educator also called attention to the fact that the use of the VBAC score, which attempts to help doctors determine a woman’s chances of successful vaginal birth after a previous cesarian section, has led to unnecessary C-sections for numerous Black and Latina women.  

Until new research in 2021 prompted doctors to drop race as a component, protocols automatically had them assign a higher VBAC risk score to Black and Latina women. This often led to the automatic ordering of C-sections for these women, even though C-section births substantially increase the risk of maternal health complications and death.  

The research that brought about the change found that the higher risk scores for women of color had originally been based not on race or genetics, but on findings that single parenthood and lack of insurance were additional risk factors contraindicating vaginal birth. Somehow, “uninsured single mother” was fed into the algorithm, and the interpretation was “Black or Latina.”  

Correcting heartless calculations 

Heart failure risk score is another in this long list of “race corrections.” Physicians use this calculation to determine the level of risk of death in patients prior to hospital admission, with higher scores indicating greater risk. This protocol gives white patients what amounts to a “golden ticket” into the hospital. Being “non-black” automatically confers an additional three points. Black and Latino patients, regardless of other health concerns, frequently receive lower scores and are thus less likely to obtain needed hospital care.  

When a popular comedian can educate the public about an issue like medical racism, it’s all for the good. It’s now up to us to make some changes. 

Landmark Study of Medical Racism Has Not Become Policy 

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Racism in medicine is not always hidden as structural or implicit biases.

In more than 700 pages, a 2002 report published by a committee of the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) delivered a blistering indictment of the medical racism experienced by Black and brown people throughout the country. The report also offered policy recommendations to address the problem.  

It is disheartening to realize that, after almost two decades, little has changed.  

Revealing “Unequal Treatment” 

“Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” was the first report of its scope and magnitude to call out systemic racism as one of the leading factors behind deep-rooted disparities in American healthcare. The Institute of Medicine, an independent government advisory organization, produced evidence from research by its blue-ribbon committee experts, with the goal of igniting a long-overdue conversation that would result in measurable change. 

Although earlier reports, such as one dating from 1999 and issued by the National Cancer Policy Board, had called attention to the issue, “Unequal Treatment” represented a sea change in policy research. No other work had covered such a broad scope of medical conditions, or provided as much comprehensive analysis.  

“Unequal Treatment” contained a number of strong recommendations designed to make the healthcare experience better for both patients and medical professionals. It pointed to ways to improve funding and allocation of care, data management, community healthcare systems, language interpretation services, cross-cultural training for providers, and more.  

The ultimate goal was to assist policy-makers and other decision-makers in building systems of equity and inclusion that would give every American—regardless of race, ethnicity, or social background—equitable access to quality healthcare.  

Unmasking bias 

While previous studies had kept their focus simply on access to healthcare, “Unequal Treatment” reported that, even when patients of different backgrounds had comparable access to healthcare services, the treatment they received was not comparable. These findings held true even when controlling for factors like income and insurance. 

“Unequal Treatment” also zeroed in on the “clinical encounter”—the provider-patient relationship—to see how interactions at that level can impact wider disparities. As we have since learned, the attitudes and expectations of doctors and medical teams play a big role in the quality of care that patients receive. 

“Shock waves” 

At the time of its release in the early 2000s, the report sent, in the words of the editorial team at StatNews, “shock waves through medicine.” One prominent physician and advocate who served on the report’s committee called the published results a “wake-up call” for anyone working in patient care. The chair of the “Unequal Treatment” committee said that the “bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and clinical uncertainty” found within medical teams may play a significant role in creating and sustaining disparities in healthcare. 

At the time, newspapers gave front-page coverage to stories outlining the report’s findings, and members of Congress formed committees to hold hearings on the problem. Referring to what she’d learned from the report, Donna Marie Christensen, a doctor who served in Congress as a non-voting delegate representing the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1997 to 2015, said that Black and brown citizens refused to be “sick and tired anymore.” 

Disturbing specifics 

One especially disturbing finding was that Black women diagnosed with breast cancer were less likely than their white counterparts to receive radiation therapy paired with mastectomy and post-mastectomy rehabilitation support. In addition, two times as many Black men as white men received no treatment whatsoever for prostate cancer. Black patients overall were 60 percent more likely than white patients to not receive any treatment for pain associated with cancer. 

Problems of the present 

In summarizing the amount of progress made in the 20 years since the publication of “Unequal Treatment,” StatNews noted that multiple inequities and disparities persist.  

Black and brown Americans in 2022 continue to experience poorer health outcomes in terms of almost every disease and condition examined in the original report. Black and brown people die at higher rates from these conditions.  

Although the racial life expectancy gap has been closing over recent decades, white Americans in 2018 still lived an average of 3.6 years longer than their Black counterparts. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that approximately 200 Black Americans daily were suffering premature deaths. Many of these deaths stemmed from causes like cardiovascular disease and other conditions for which better treatment would have improved the patient’s length and quality of life. 

It gets worse when you look at the statistics during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Black and brown people making up disproportionate numbers among the lower-wage, front-line essential service workers most at risk. Current studies have found that Black American life expectancy has dropped again and now stands at five years shorter than that of white Americans. 

Imagine having five years stolen from your life. That’s five years less to be with your family and friends, five years less to achieve your goals. This is unconscionable.   

No easy answers 

It’s deeply disturbing that so few of the more than 20 detailed and policy-focused recommendations from that landmark 20-year-old report were acted upon. Where can we go from here?  

Data collection that would allow us to precisely quantify and track disparities is still, in the words of one expert, “a mess.” That’s something we can improve. Recruiting and retaining larger numbers of culturally competent healthcare professionals who look like—and understand—the communities they serve will also go a long way toward improving communication and building trust. 

With the greater awareness today of the damage structural racism inflicts, we need to make the recommendations from “Unequal Treatment” a national, not just a local, priority. The big obstacle here is that the American healthcare system isn’t a national one. It is fragmented. Healthcare administration sprawls across federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the enormous variety of administrations among private provider networks. 

In addition, providers, administrators, and the public must acknowledge the tangible effects of structural racism, as well as implicit bias on the part of individual medical professionals. This is far easier said than done, but failure to confront the issue simply ensures that more Black and brown Americans will lose more quality years with the people they love.