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COMMENTARY: Meharry’s Juul grant is good news

FLORIDA COURIER — Should Meharry Medical College, a Historically Black College (HBCU) established in 1876 in Nashville, have accepted $7.5 million from Juul Labs, the controversial e-cigarette company that provides an alternative to smoking tobacco? Meharry says it will use the grant, the second-largest it has ever received, to study public health issues and African Americans, including the health effects of tobacco products. They will establish a Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health and according to its president, Dr. James Hildreth, “begin conducting fully-independent research into the health conditions and issues related to tobacco and nicotine-delivery products.”

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Dr. Julianne Malveaux

Should Meharry Medical College, a Historically Black College (HBCU) established in 1876 in Nashville, have accepted $7.5 million from Juul Labs, the controversial e-cigarette company that provides an alternative to smoking tobacco?

Meharry says it will use the grant, the second-largest it has ever received, to study public health issues and African Americans, including the health effects of tobacco products. They will establish a Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health and according to its president, Dr. James Hildreth, “begin conducting fully-independent research into the health conditions and issues related to tobacco and nicotine-delivery products.”

Should have passed?

Critics say that Meharry has made a deal with the devil since African American people smoke more and have a higher death rate from tobacco-related illnesses than other racial and ethnic groups. They think Meharry should have passed on the Juul donation because they don’t believe that the historically Black Meharry can’t take Juul’s money and continue to make a difference in Black lives.

I say nonsense! Juul will not be dictating the topics or terms of research with Meharry. Dr. Hildreth, who has been determined to increase the amount of research that Meharry students are doing, says the college approached Juul, not the other way around – and they did it with their eyes wide open.

He says he is confident that the new research center Meharry will establish will be independent of Juul. They won’t have input to the research topics that Meharry tackles, nor will they determine the course or direction of research.

A pause

Most medical colleges, including Meharry, turn down contributions from tobacco companies. As Meharry and Juul were exploring the possibility of the donation, Altria, a tobacco company, acquired 35 percent of Juul. Should that have killed the deal?

It caused Meharry to pause. But eventually, they decided to accept the money because they believe they can use it for the greater good. I agree.

President Hildreth has been a biomedical researcher for more than 36 years. In a letter to the Meharry community, he reminded them that “The bodies of Black Americans have historically been the subject of scientific experimentation with no control on our part. If it takes an unorthodox partnership to change that dynamic, then let the research begin.”

Government approval

I can’t read that part of Hildreth’s letter without thinking of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where the federal government-funded research on the effects of untreated syphilis on Black men. Medicine to cure syphilis was withheld from the men in the experiment. The federal government did this!

The commercial use of Black bodies included the harvesting (and reproduction) of the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose DNA is still being used today for medical research. And, when we think of experiments on Black bodies, one must think of the odious J. Marion Sims, who was called the “father of modern gynecology.” He earned his fame by conducting painful experiments on enslaved women. Thank goodness New York City removed his statue from Central Park!

Meharry doesn’t aim to hurt the six million African Americans who are smokers or to profit from them. They aim to have a seat at the research table, a place from which Black researchers, and Black research institutions, have often been excluded.

Juul’s contribution allows Meharry to pull up a chair to the research table and participate in the scientific inquiry about the health effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products – critical investigation given the fact that African Americans are more likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses than others.

Some questions

Dr. Hildreth’s letter to the Meharry community outlines several research questions. What is the long-term impact of e-cigarettes? Does vaping cause developmental health issues? Are vaping devices effective as smoking reduction or cessation devices?

Will laws prohibiting tobacco sales for those under 21 improve health outcomes? San Francisco recently passed legislation outlawing the sale of vaping devices. How effective are such laws? These are questions worth answering through research.

From where I sit, Meharry should have negotiated for a much more substantial contribution from Juul, and perhaps they will. After all, according to Dr. Hildreth, the tobacco industry “has taken our money and delivered sickness and death in return.

“We at Meharry intend to advance the fight for better health and longer life by turning that insidious relationship on its head.”

The right thing

Bravo, Dr. Hildreth. If Meharry’s research can help us learn more about addiction, and if the research can be used for tobacco use prevention, then Meharry is doing the right thing. I don’t see others lining up to fund Meharry’s research, and fundraising for HBCUs is extremely challenging.

I look forward to the work that the Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health will produce.


Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available at www.juliannemalveaux.com. Click on this commentary at www.flcourier.com to write your own response.

This article originally appeared in the Florida Courier.

Bay Area

Asian/Black Relations Can Get Better Together During Heritage Month

Heritage months are ways to benchmark our progress and see what urgently needs to be done now. 

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Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

President Joe Biden has given May a new name. It’s no longer Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, as proclaimed by Obama in 2009.  And it’s definitely not Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, as proclaimed by Jimmy Carter in 1978. It’s Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Month, as proclaimed by Biden on the last day of April this year. 

That’s our new umbrella. A big one, incorporating everyone. From the East Bay’s Rocky Johnson, the father of Dwayne the Rock, an African American/Samoan American. To Vallejo’s Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, a/k/a H.E.R., the African American Filipino of Grammy- Oscar-winning- songs fame.

Despite how huge the umbrella is incorporating more than 23 million people from more than 20 countries of origin, we are all American. And we’re the fastest-growing group in the nation, set to double in size, overtake the Latinx population and, with 46 million people, become the largest ethnic group in America by 2060. 

And so we’ve come to expect people seeking to divide us up. During a Zoom conference of attorneys general last week, a member of the audience had a question. “There seems to be an emphasis on attributing anti-Asian violence to white people,” said a white male to the panel. “And I’m just wondering if it is healthy to do that, or an effort to do that…when in some incidents, the attacks were committed by non-white people.”

Essentially, the man was saying, “Don’t blame white people,” implying that Blacks have often been perps in some high profile crimes against Asians. 

But it seemed more like a question to drive a wedge to break up our solidarity.

Fortunately, civil rights activists John Yang knew exactly how to answer that one. 

“Yes, there have been attacks on Asian Americans by people that are not white, no question about that,” he said. “But I would ask everyone to be really, really careful about what the actual statistics are, because the statistics show that the predominant number of people attacking Asians are Caucasian.” Then he referred to some high-profile cases in the Bay Area where Blacks attacked elderly Asians, once again pointing out it was the exception, not the norm.

It was the right response to avoid creating divisiveness and to let everyone know that the only way to end racism is to fight it together.

But he also said something that rang true to most Asian Americans. 

“Let’s be clear, there (are) elements of anti-Blackness in the Asian American community, that we do need to unlearn as well,” he said. Then he made it personal. “And that’s something that I’m going to call out on myself, and in our community, and we would ask everyone to do the same thing as we’re all learning together.”

It was a rare candid public moment that unveiled a sense of friction between Asian and Black communities that has existed since the days I wrote op-ed pieces in the 1990s in the Tribune. 

Heritage months are ways to benchmark our progress and see what urgently needs to be done now. 

Like the speaker said, a lot of it involves calling out where we have fallen short of the ideal.

That’s what Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month is really for—to learn the good, and unlearn the bad, together. 

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Activism

Chauvin Trial Shows Need for Broad Focus on Systemic Racism

Officer’s Conviction Necessary but Not Sufficient, Greenlining Institute Says

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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – In response to the announcement of the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin on all three counts in the killing of George Floyd, Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann released the following statement:
“Today we experienced a small measure of justice as Derek Chauvin was convicted and the killing of George Floyd was recognized as the criminal act it was. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that one conviction of one cop for a killing the whole world witnessed on video will change a fundamentally racist and dysfunctional system. The whole law enforcement system must be rethought and rebuilt from the ground up so that there are no more George Floyds, Daunte Wrights and Adam Toledos. But even that is just a start.
“Policing doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Systemic racism exists in policing because systemic racism exists in America. We must fundamentally uproot the disease of racism in our society and create a transformative path forward.”
To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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Activism

When I See George Floyd, I See an Asian American

 A modern-day lynching is specific and symbolic all at once. If you know Asian American history, then you know Asians in California, Chinese, and Filipino, were lynched in America.

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courtesy istock

You watching the trial of the now ex-Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, the person I call the “knee man?”

   That’s what he was. Chauvin’s on trial for the murder of George Floyd, but I’m wondering how the defense is going to play this. Say that Chauvin’s knee acted independently? 

     The evidence is piling up. In Monday’s testimony, no less than the Minneapolis Chief of Police Medaria Arradondo said that Chauvin’s actions were in violation of “our principles and values that we have.” 

    In other words, the placing of the knee to the neck of Floyd, who was face down with hands cuffed behind his back, was “in no way, shape or form part of police policy or training.”

    If you’re a juror and hear the chief come down on Chauvin, how can you possibly not find the officer guilty?

   The defense has said it will focus on Floyd’s fentanyl drug use, presumably to link that as the real cause of death. But the prosecution on Monday brought out Dr. Bradford Langenfield, the Emergency Room doc who pronounced Floyd dead. He noted the length of time before Floyd got any breathing aid, and said Floyd’s death was more likely caused by asphyxia, or a lack of oxygen. 

     From the drugs or the knee?

     The defense will claim it wasn’t the knee, which at times was also on Floyd’s shoulder. Is that enough reasonable doubt? 

    Remember it was when Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck, not when he was walking around with drugs in his system, when Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” 

   So far, the trial’s most compelling moment came when Darnella Frazier, the teenager who took the cell phone video we all have seen, recalled her trauma at witnessing of Floyd’s death.

     “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles because they are all Black. I have a Black brother, I have Black friends. And I look at that and I look at how that could have been one of them,” Frazier said. “It’s been nights, I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more. And not physically interacting.”

     Van Jones on CNN said Frazier had witnessed a lynching.

   “When you have a lynching, which is what this was,” said Jones, “you aren’t just torturing the individual who you’re strangling to death, you’re torturing the whole community.”

     A modern-day lynching is specific and symbolic all at once. If you know Asian American history, then you know Asians in California, Chinese, and Filipino, were lynched in America.

As my friend Ishmael Reed told me on my amok.com vlog, don’t let the media play “divide and conquer.” This isn’t a Black vs. Asian thing.

All BIPOC are fighting a common foe.  All people of color have been under someone’s knee at some time in America. It’s our common ground, our shared past in America’s racist history.

That’s why to paraphrase Darnella Frazier, when I see George Floyd, I see an Asian American. And so should you.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning Bay Area veteran journalist and commentator. See his vlog at www.amok.com 

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