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Stanford Geneticist Pushes for More African-Americans, Hispanics to Join Critical Research

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By Kenneth J. Cooper, Special to the NNPA from America’s Wire –

A Stanford University geneticist, Carlos D. Bustamante, is leading an effort to include more Hispanics and African-Americans in genetic research critical to determining root causes of many diseases. He has been critical of such research that has often focused largely on White populations.

Work by the award-winning geneticist, who was born in Venezuela, has helped to expand testing in a global study that is known as the 1000 Genomes project and was launched in 2008 to map the genes of at least 1,000 people worldwide. An international group of scientists is taking DNA samples, analyzing them, and sharing the findings.

The study started with samples taken in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. But, Bustamante immediately recognized that South America was missing from the project, which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is coordinating. He successfully pressed for adding Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Barbados.

“We’re one of the groups that have really been very passionate about studying African-American populations and studying Hispanic-Latino populations so that they get brought into the fold of medical genetics research,” says Bustamante, speaking for himself and fellow researchers in his Stanford lab.

Early results from the 1000 Genomes project exemplify the significance of genetic research and the severe downside for populations not included in the testing. Already, the research has found that small genetic variations help to explain why some groups are more at risk for cancer and diabetes.

What’s clear is that lack of diversity has occurred for some time. A 2009 review of nearly 400 studies worldwide found that more than 90 percent have examined only people of European descent. Duke University researchers counted 26 studies of Asians, three of Hispanics, two of Native Americans, and none of African-Americans. Another 11 studies tested people from a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“NIH has a lot of responsibility” for the racial-ethnic imbalance, says Dr. Esteban Burchard, a Mexican-American geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco. “They’re happy to take our tax dollars, but they don’t distribute them equally.”

NIH has acknowledged the imbalance despite a policy adopted in 1985 encouraging inclusion of minorities in studies it funds. Since that year, federal law has mandated that all NIH-funded research include minorities.

“I don’t think enough of them have been studied,” says Charles Rotimi, director of NIH’s Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health. “There needs to be a commitment from the various institutes to fund these large-scale studies.”

Jean McEwen, a program director at the National Human Genome Research Institute, says the five-year, $120 million 1000 Genomes study started as a pilot project intended for expansion. She says it took time to secure government approval in some countries or, in others, to identify scientific partners, which she says Bustamante did for the South American and Caribbean countries.

“It’s really just a practical matter,” McEwen says of the initial omission of countries in those regions.

Bustamante and Burchard, also a physician, indicate that Bustamante encountered resistance to broadening the 1000 Genomes project, which has funding from NIH, a private British trust and two genetics institutes in China.

Burchard says Bustamante has been “really pushing the field, bending the steel, to look at other populations” and has succeeded because he has leverage as a respected professor at Stanford and, previously, Cornell University, with three degrees from Harvard University. Last year, Bustamante, 36, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius award.”

Beyond 1000 Genomes, Rotimi says NIH has funded so few genetic studies of minorities for many reasons. He and McEwen cite difficulty recruiting minorities, who tend to be skeptical of medical research because of past abuses, as in the Tuskegee study of syphilis in African-American men from 1932 to 1972.

McEwen, who does community outreach for 1000 Genomes, emphasizes the recruitment problems. But, Rotimi says “perhaps one of the biggest problems” is the small number of minority geneticists, who tend to “navigate towards their own communities.”

“By that alone, you’re going to have fewer studies” of minorities, Rotimi says. A related reason, he adds, is that historically Black and Hispanic-serving colleges often lack adequate labs and other equipment to make grant applications by their professors competitive with those from researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, leading recipients of NIH funds.

“One of the reasons that researchers say they study White populations is that they’re easier to study, they’re more homogeneous, blah-blah-blah,” Bustamante says. “But, it’s really that they haven’t really done enough to engage minority populations.”

The field of genetics, Burchard says, is “amazingly non-diverse. We have very few minority scientists.”

Besides himself and Bustamante, who are Hispanic, Burchard named Rick Kittles of the University of Illinois at Chicago, saying, “To my knowledge, he’s the only African-American geneticist in the country who has any credibility.”

Kittles has been researching prostate cancer, which afflicts African-American men at a rate higher than that for any other racial-ethnic group in the country. He started the NIH-funded study in the 1990s while at Howard University, one of three historically Black colleges with a medical school. Five Hispanic-serving institutions also have one, and a sixth is not yet operating, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Burchard specializes in seeking genetic reasons that a disease is more prevalent in one group than another. Since 1997, he has conducted an NIH-funded study of asthma, trying to find reasons for an extreme disparity among Hispanics. Puerto Ricans have the nation’s highest rate of asthma, while Mexican-Americans have the lowest, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta.

“We’re not sure where the difference is coming from,” he says.

In general, Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans are of mixed European, Native American, and African ancestry, Burchard says. His study examines whether the disparity in asthma rates is related to genetic differences in those three groups that populated Puerto Rico and Mexico.

According to the CDC, Puerto Ricans are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to have asthma and 80 percent more likely than African-Americans, who are included in Burchard’s study. Bustamante is collaborating on the asthma research.

Burchard and his colleagues are also looking for genetic factors that may explain disparities in heart and kidney disease, breast cancer, obesity, and types of lung disease other than asthma.

Such research holds the medical promise of finding better treatments that reduce the health disparities experienced by minorities. Still, “genome-wide association studies,” as they are technically known, have critics.

Prominent among them is Troy Duster, a professor of sociology and bioethics at New York University, who criticizes studies that look only at genetic causes of disease, ignoring environmental and social factors such as diet, exercise, and stress caused by perceived racism. “I think this is a huge issue,” he says. “You can’t just do one kind of study.”

Burchard says his asthma study is in fact examining environmental and social factors behind the disease, not just genetic ones.

Duster, who has written academic articles on the subject, expresses concern that the genetic studies make racial differences appear more scientific then they actually are. “My objection to those kinds of studies is that they are making it sound as if race is understood to be a biological phenomenon,” he says.

The idea that race has a biological aspect may comfort those who believe that the races are so different they should live apart. There is evidence that it already has.

In 2007, David Duke, a former national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and former Louisiana state representative, praised Burchard’s research. “I do think your work and others who show real biological differences between races is important,” Duke wrote to Burchard in an e-mail that Duke posted on his website. “You show that race is truly real, not a societal construct or some sort of conspiracy theory.”

Burchard shrugs off Duke’s embrace.

“Regardless of what you develop, whether it’s nuclear energy or biologic information, you’re always going to have some perverted individuals trying to manipulate it to their gain,” he says. “But, that doesn’t mean that we should stop doing science.”

As for Duster’s criticism about how race is seen because of genetic studies, Burchard maintains that science is on his side.

“We know that there are biologic differences,” he says. “Rather than trying to be politically correct and burying our heads in the sand, we should be looking at these differences and trying to use these differences to untangle disease.”

Bustamante says he and coworkers in his lab try to “figure out ways to increase diversity in medical genetics research, both in the U.S. and out” because otherwise “studies will get developed and done that don’t benefit everybody.”

Tyler Perry: 'Spike Lee Can Go Straight to Hell'

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By Erica Butler, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

Ahead of the national premiere of his latest project, writer and director Tyler Perry said recently he is weary of deflecting criticism that his work lacks substance and is not an authentic and constructive portrayal of Black Americans.

Perry’s latest film, “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” opened across the country April 22. He said during a Beverly Hills news conference, prior to the film’s opening, that he is particularly irritated by criticism from Black filmmaker Spike Lee.

“I’m so sick of hearing about damn Spike Lee,” Perry said, according to reports. “Spike can go straight to hell! You can print that. I am sick of him talking about me, I am sick of him saying, ‘This is a coon, this is a buffoon.’”

Lee has dismissed Perry’s artistic vision as low-brow entertainment, which exploits negative images—among them Perry, a Black man, dressing in drag for his role as Madea—for laughs and box office success.

Perry’s work, built around the audience’s embrace of Madea, has produced a string of hits and generated strong support from African American moviegoers.

“I am sick of him talking about Black people going to see movies,” Perry said of Lee’s criticism. “This is what he said: ‘You vote by what you see,’ as if Black people don't know what they want to see."

The feud between the two filmmakers dates back to 2009 when, in an interview with BET reporter Ed Gordon, Spike Lee compared Perry’s portrayal of Blacks in his films to “Amos n’ Andy,” the first Black situation comedy to be broadcast nationally in the 1950s and which contained stereotypical roles of African-Americans. Lee said that he does not expect Perry’s films to reflect Lee’s own vision of Black America, but he insists that “imaging” of the Black community is significant.

“Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors, but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery,” Lee said in the interview. “I am a huge basketball fan, and when I watch the games on TNT, I see these two ads for these two shows [Perry’s “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns”], and I am scratching my head. We got a Black president, and we going back to [early Black comedians] Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat?”

Perry defended his work, pointing out that other ethnicities have their own versions of his films.

“I've never seen Jewish people attack ‘Seinfeld’ and say ‘this is a stereotype.’ I've never seen Italian people attack ‘The Sopranos.’ I've never seen Jewish people complaining about ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ or Dustin Hoffman in ‘Tootsie,’” he said.

In his online journal at tylerperry.com, Perry wrote that his new movie is just food for the soul, and only his fans will understand his vision.

Critics “don't get that this is about more than making a movie and telling a funny story,” he wrote on his site. He added that detractors “don't get that it's about uplifting and encouraging the soul. They don't get that most [Perry film fans] have been with me long before they knew who I was, and they don't get that you have my back.”

Racial Tension Taints Views on Health Reform

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By Charlene Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from The Final Call –

According to findings by a national policy institute for race and economic justice, racial tensions in America undergird the debate over national health reform.

In a study titled, “The Role of Race in the Healthcare Debate,” researchers with the Greenlining Institute reported that Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color are more likely than Whites to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In addition, the act is more likely to be opposed by Whites who are racially biased or show “racial resentment.”

“Racial resentment is a modern form of racism that developed in the post-civil rights era ... Negative attitudes towards Blacks can manifest themselves in an individual's political attitudes,” said Dr. Daniel Byrd, research director for the Greenlining Institute.

In analyzing data from the 2008- 2009 American National Election Survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Stanford University, Byrd, Carla Saporta and Rosa Martinez, Greenlining Health Program managers, accounted for variables like age, gender, education, income, political ideology, and whether or not those surveyed had health insurance. People harboring racial resentment argue Blacks lag behind in society because they don't work hard enough, not because of discrimination, Dr. Byrd told The Final Call.

This study is related to work by other researchers who argued since the president is Black, Americans were more sensitive to race and President Obama's association with issues and policies made debates and opinions more racialized, Dr. Byrd said.

The 2008-2009 American National Election Survey found 38.4 percent of Whites supported the healthcare law, compared to 78.6 percent of Blacks, 52.6 percent of Latinos and 43.6 of people from other racial groups.

During the summer of 2010, 44.3 percent of Americans favored the health care legislation compared to 35.8 percent who opposed it.

Its findings and Greenlining's report come at a time when non-Whites generally endure a greater likelihood of being without health insurance and suffer from racial health disparities in the U.S.

According to statistics highlighted in the “The Role of Race in the Healthcare Debate,” Blacks and Latinos are less likely to have a regular doctor when compared to Whites; American Indian/Alaska Native adults are more likely than Whites to be diagnosed with diabetes; while Black women are 10 percent less likely than White women to be diagnosed with breast cancer but are 36 percent more likely than White women to die from the disease.

On March 24, 2010, a day after President Barack Obama signed the health reform legislation, Minister Louis Farrakhan commented on the bitter controversy surrounding passage of the act. He described it as a “Pyrrhic victory.”

“I called it a Pyrrhic victory, because even though Mr. Obama won one of the greatest things of his young presidency, something that America has been desirous of for many, many decades, yet, at the same time of the victory, there's a splitting of the country,” Farrakhan said during an interview on the Cliff Kelly Show on 1690 AM-WVON.

“It was a victory in one sense, but great loss in another because you have 13 or 14 states desiring to repeal this law, and you have the vitriol, and the manifestation of hatred—because President Obama is viewed and is being demonized as a Socialist, and even as a Hitler,” Farrakhan said.

In a videotaped message posted on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius highlighted the act's progress a year later. Many revisions have yet to go into effect, but the changes have already granted Americans new protections, greater freedoms, and lower costs, she said.

“Thanks to a Patient's Bill of Rights, insurers are prohibited from turning away children because of their pre-existing health conditions and families in new plans have access to free, recommended preventive care. Beneficiaries with Medicare now have the freedom to get preventive care screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies for free,” Secretary Sebelius continued.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, other benefits that have taken effect are 50 percent discounts on brand-name drugs for seniors on Medicare and tax credits for small businesses that provide insurance to employees.

Still, data says racial resentment, even among America's younger generation, is at the forefront of the movement to defund the health care bill, Byrd said. People born into political systems develop their political attitudes in childhood and those predispositions become lasting, he noted.

“The things that are going on now, efforts to defund the healthcare bill, will disproportionately effect communities of color ... Are they going to stop its implementation? We'll have to see how this shapes up and what happens next,” Byrd said.

U.N. Mixes It Up in Ivory Coast, Showing New Muscle

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

The United Nations, which authorized French troops to attack the hideout of the former president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, shifted its role from peacekeeper to aggressor in that country’s deadly electoral dispute.

Former president Gbagbo who had refused to step down after a narrow defeat to Alassane Ouattara in a November poll, was arrested in a basement bunker with his wife and some staff. Incoming president Ouattara insisted that no French troops entered the basement hideout, although the U.N. acknowledged that it OK’d the military strikes on the president’s compound.

The U.N. intervention in the West African nation is being seen as an extension of the body’s previous green light to the use of force in Libya. A “humanitarian” bombing campaign was approved in that case to defend rebels opposed to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The action against Ivory Coast was supported by all the Security Council members including Russia and China, which in the past did not interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.

With Mr. Ouattara now the sole leader in charge of the country, observers question whether it will be enough to end the fighting. Ethnic violence has festered during the lengthy tug-of-war with Gbagbo, particularly in the west of the country, with hundreds of people killed as both sides in the conflict committed atrocities against civilians, aid groups say.

Meanwhile, in France, Gbagbo spokesman Alain Toussaint, accused French special forces of carrying out a coup in its former colony on behalf of Ouattara.

"It was a coup d'etat which had no other aim but to gain control of the resources of Ivory Coast," Toussaint told reporters in Paris.

Republicans Seek Drastic Cuts in Minnesota Human Rights Department

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By Mel Reeves, Special to the NNPA from the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder –

“They [Republicans] seem intent on taking away the state’s ability to fight for equal rights. We believe that it is morally and ethically wrong,” explained Bobby Joe Champion. He was responding to Minnesota House and Senate Republicans, who recently passed the Public Safety Omnibus Bill that included deep cuts to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR).

The House version of the bill included a 65 percent cut, and the Senate version requested a 50 percent reduction in the MDHR budget.

“We need to be doing more, not less,” suggested Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey. According to Lindsey, the proposed cuts would make it even more difficult than it already is to process cases in a timely manner. Presently, Lindsey says that his limited staff takes more than 400 days to complete investigations into charges. “No way can we be effective with this level of cut,” said Lindsay. Presently, the Human Rights Department spends 80 percent of its budget on staff and operating costs.

However, Republicans proposing the cuts suggested that the department spends the majority of its budget on education. “We changed their mission and tied the state funds to enforcement, and if they want to use federal funds for education and outreach, that was fine,” said Tony Cornish.

But according to Lindsey, only six percent of the budget is spent on education. Lindsey said he suspects that the reason that this exaggeration has been used as justification to cut his budget is because it is a part of a national right-wing campaign. It is a campaign whose goal is to cut out or restrict enforcement of human rights statutes across the country.

Republican governors in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Idaho are among those who have recently sought to reduce the size and scope of their states’ human rights departments.

“What this bill says,” explained Republican Rep. Kerry Gauthier “is that Minnesota — which has an issue in discrimination in employment, the worst in the country — is going to walk away from human rights.” Gauthier was referring to a recent Star Tribune article that cited several studies indicating that Minnesota has the largest Black-White unemployment gap in the nation (20.4 percent for Blacks vs. 6.6 percent for Whites).

Presently, the Department of Human Rights investigates charges of illegal discrimination and ensures that businesses seeking State contracts are in compliance with equal opportunity requirements. It also strives to eliminate discrimination by educating Minnesotans about their rights and responsibilities under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Incidentally, Minnesota was ahead of its time when it passed its Human Rights Act in 1954. The act prohibits discrimination because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, public services and education.

“Such discrimination,” reads the act, “threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of this state and menaces the institutions and foundations of democracy.”

Champion, in floor debate on the bill, pointed out that the cuts would cripple the department’s ability to carry out its mandate to enforce the Minnesota’s anti-discrimination laws. “What sort of message does that send to our broader society?” asked the local legislator. But, Republican legislator Cornish insisted that the bill “didn’t gouge” the MDHR but only “reduced their budget.”

Cornish also suggested that businesses that are required to show proof that they are compliant with anti-discriminatory hiring laws should be doing more than $250,000 in State contracts. Presently, businesses doing $100,000 in State contracts have to comply with the MDHR and show proof that they are compliant with State anti-discriminatory laws.

Last year, MHDR had 805 charges of discrimination filed. Most frequent were complaints of disability discrimination (325), followed by complaints of racial discrimination and religion (261). There were 207 gender discrimination complaints.

On a more encouraging note, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton insists he will maintain the MHDR’s budget at the same level as in the past biennium. Dayton reaffirmed his commitment last week in his response to the Black Economic Summit held recently in North Minneapolis.

Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to mellaneous19@yahoo.com

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