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Blacks should join this race

4/12/2011, 4:36 p.m.

Yvonne B. Haskins



Yvonne B. Haskins is a real estate lawyer and developer

As I have for many years, today I will walk in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

It's been invigorating to see the growth of this event over the years, with young and old, male and female breast-cancer survivors, and women of every size, shape, and form participating. Yet every time, I wonder why I see so few black people, especially women.

As a black woman, I'm keenly uncomfortable that so few of us show up to support a fight against a disease that's killing a higher percentage of young black women than it is among white women. I write not only to voice frustration, but also to encourage more color in the crowd next year, and in the hope that organizers will do more to recruit this support.

Last Sunday, at a multiple-sclerosis walk, there was so much diversity in the crowd. And I mentioned to my white friend that we probably wouldn't see the same level of diversity on Mother's Day.

I don't get it. Detecting breast cancer as early as possible is critical to saving young lives. Making such screening accessible and urging uninformed women to get screened every year is the job of community leadership. It is mass-marketing at its best; the face on the message is key.

So why the lack of support? Breast cancer is deadlier in black women younger than 55 than it is in white women in the same age group. Studies report that this cancer in black women is aggressive and harder to treat, with an annual death rate in the United States of 15.4 deaths per 100,000 population, versus 9.3 per 100,000 for younger white women.

We don't yet know why there is such a huge difference, but black women should be alarmed and standing in line at mammogram centers. African Americans should be on the front line fighting this disease. Where are the black sororities, the black church groups, the community organizations? They should be atPhiladelphia's biggest event for this cause.

Is the lack of participation a residue of the old "gender" struggle, which was often perceived as excluding black women? Or is Race for the Cure seen as a "white women's event," sort of an extension of the political fight to increase federal support for breast-cancer research? Yet it's been a great battle, generating more funds and a decrease in the death rate among early detected cases. So why, increasingly, are only white women showing up?

Ideally, this challenge would be seen as a medical problem that has nothing to do with power, politics, or even race. And yet it is all about power, politics, and race, especially when the racial group most affected fails to take responsibility.

Power, politics, and race dynamics can trigger positive outcomes, just as women used gender politics so effectively to draw attention to breast cancer. Having the power to take on a disease that's disproportionally killing your daughters, mothers, and sisters means you show up and own the responsibility.

Taking on the political challenge of fighting for scarce resources so that more women are screened annually means speaking out, organizing, and demanding attention. It means showing up to stand shoulder to shoulder with all women.

When an event is supported by mostly white people in a city that's 50 percent minority, the challenge also becomes a conversation about race, especially since all of the funds raised in Race for the Cure in Philadelphia stay in the city.

Next year, will we get black people, especially women, to show up on Mother's Day at 8 a.m. in front of the Art Museum steps to join a movement to save the lives of young women, a high percentage of whom are black?

I wonder. I hope.