FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo, an electronic signboard welcomes people to the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.
But then, Howard University has never exactly been low-profile.
For more than a century, the predominantly Black institution in the nation’s capital has educated generations of Black political and cultural leaders. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris.
But even by those standards, the school has been on a hot streak lately, with new funding streams, fresh cultural relevancy and high-profile faculty additions. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as confirmation that Howard intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard University, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She rose to fame with The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reframed U.S. history through a racial equity lens and helped mainstream the idea of critical race theory — a topic that has become a core Republican talking point.
FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2019 file photo, author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Coates serves as confirmation that Howard University intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
Coates has written critically on U.S. race relations for years and is closely associated with the argument for reparations for slavery.
Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, doesn’t characterize either hiring as overtly political, but merely a natural extension of the university’s motivating ethos.
“Howard University has been on that caravan for social justice for about 154 years,” Frederick said in an interview. “Howard has a rich legacy. … My responsibility is to contemporize that and to bring faculty to the university who are in the contemporary space, speaking to present-day issues.”
Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, a Howard alumnus, described the moves as a pivotal jump in the university’s national stature. Howard, he said, had gone from traditionally “punching above its weight class” to “moving up a whole division.”
All this is just a few years removed from a period of internal tension and financial scandal. In 2018, six employees were fired amid revelations of more than $350,000 in misappropriated grant funding, and students staged a nine-day occupation of the administration building over demands that included better housing and an end to tuition increases.
But even amid those problems, Howard has seen a boost in applications and enrollment as more Black students choose to attend historically Black colleges and universities. “I do think that we’re seeing a renaissance, and that that’s driven by the students more than the parents,” said Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University. Rooks attended Spelman, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta.
Howard University Student Association President Kylie Burke, left, introduces Vice President Kamala Harris to the podium to speaks about voting rights at Howard University in Washington, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Vice President Harris returned to Howard days after the hirings were announced. Speaking at a news conference on a voters’ rights initiative sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, she received a rapturous welcome from a packed house that supplied church-style “amens” and burst into applause when she called Howard “a very important part of why I stand before you at this moment as vice president of the United States of America.”
For current students, the school’s rising profile is a confirmation of their choice to attend “The Mecca” — one of Howard’s many nicknames.
“There’s something truly intangible about this university,” said Kylie Burke, a political science major and president of the Howard Student Association, who introduced Harris at the event. Like Harris, Burke came from Northern California to attend Howard, and she served as a legislative fellow in Harris’ office when she was a senator. “Howard teaches you a thing about grit, it teaches you to remain focused, it teaches you to be persistent,” Burke said.
The hirings capped a dizzying stretch for Howard.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo with the Founders Library in the background, people walk along the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Within the past year, Harris was elected vice president; MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated $40 million; and actor Phylicia Rashad returned to her alma mater as dean of the newly independent College of Fine Arts. That college will be named after the late Chadwick Boseman, a Howard graduate whose role as African superhero Black Panther made him an instant icon and shined a fresh cultural spotlight on the school.
Boseman expressed his love for the university in a 2018 commencement speech, calling it “a magical place.” He cited one of the school’s more modern nicknames, “Wakanda University,” a reference to the movie’s technologically advanced African utopia.
Although there’s rising interest across the HBCU network, Cobb said Howard will always attract a particular demographic of Black student such as Harris with an interest in politics and governance. The school has produced members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and mayors. One of Cobb’s undergraduate classmates was Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
Rooks said Hannah-Jones’ move could have ripple effects throughout academia.
Traditionally, Rooks said, Black academics were drawn to predominantly white universities because that’s where the funding and the prestige lay. But Hannah-Jones didn’t just bring her reputation; she also brought nearly $20 million in funding.
“It’s a whole other thing when you become the benefactor,” Rooks said. “We all learn how to behave, how to act, in the presence of power. If you’re the power and it’s your money, you’ve taken a whole racial dynamic off the table.”
Still, Howard’s rising prominence does bring the risk that it will overshadow smaller HBCUs. Rooks said Howard and a handful of other big names such as Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton dominate the headlines and the funding. She said, half-jokingly, that most Black American students couldn’t name more than 12 of the 107 HBCUs in the country.
One possible example of the phenomenon: In 2019, NBA star Steph Curry donated an undisclosed amount to allow Howard to launch Division I men’s and women’s golf teams, and fund them for six years. Curry was raised in North Carolina, home to 10 active HBCUs, and holds no particular connection to Howard.
The HBCU world still boils down to “five or six schools that really attract a lot of attention,” Rooks said, and dozens of others that are “desperate for funding.”
Howard’s recent fortune, she said, is “not necessarily going to raise all the boats.”
Associated Press writer Hilary Powell contributed to this report.
Follow Khalil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashrafkhalil
First, the incidence of colorectal cancer has risen dramatically among adults under age 50 in the U.S. and in many countries around the world. Second, African Americans have a much greater likelihood of being diagnosed and dying from the disease at any age. Both issues are important to the public health community and efforts are ongoing to address them.
Colorectal cancer remains a major source of cancer incidence and death in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2020, about 147,950 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 53,200 will die from the disease, making it the fourth most prevalent form of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer mortality.
In 2017, Dr. Rebecca Siegel and colleagues published detailed and compelling statistical data clearly bringing the issue into sharp focus, stimulating greater coverage in the media.
Analysis of trends in colorectal cancer incidence and mortality have clearly shown a decline in the general U.S. population overall during the past few decades. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for young adults.
For example, incidence has decreased by an average of 4% per year between 2007 and 2016 in those over 65 years of age, in contrast to an increase of 1.4% per year during the same period in those under 50. The observed decrease in older adults is likely due to preventive screening, which is recommended and advocated for people over 50 and has been undertaken by a larger fraction of the population.
Similarly, colorectal cancer mortality has declined by 3% per year between 2008 and 2017 in those over 65, while it has increased by 1.3% per year in those under 50.
I have met a number of young people, including several in their 20s and 30s, who had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer and were in the midst of fighting it. I have also met parents who lost young adult children to the disease, and were still trying to understand how this could have happened.
I have been struck by the intensity and complexity of emotions displayed by these people, including anger, resentment, embarrassment, hopelessness, fear and resolve. While a cancer diagnosis at any age is scary and disorienting, it extracts a particularly powerful psychological and social toll on young adults.
What is causing the increase in young adults? We do not know for certain. Several studies have indicated that the disease in young people is different with regard to the specific location of the tumor within the colon or rectum.
Also, the pathology, genetics and response to treatment differ. Lifestyle trends, such as overweight and obesity, lack of physical activity and changing diets, have been suggested to play roles. Studies have indicated that obesity is associated with increased risk of early-onset colorectal cancer in women.
While these trends may contribute, they are not fully explanatory. Physicians have told me anecdotally that many of their younger patients are thin, fit, physically active and in general good health, suggesting that something else must be going on.
What could that something else be? One intriguing possibility may lie in the billions of microbes, collectively termed the microbiota, that live on and within our bodies. Preliminary findings reported at the 2020 Gastrointestinal Symposium recently indicated that there may be differences between the microbiota within tumors from younger versus older colorectal cancer patients.
African Americans and colorectal cancer
The death of Boseman has also underscored the long-standing racial disparity for colorectal cancer. African Americans suffer from high incidences and mortalities, regardless of age. Incidence in African Americans was 18% higher than in whites during 2012-2016, while mortality was 38% higher during the same period. For reasons we do not yet know, incidence in younger African Americans has been relatively stable in contrast to that in younger whites.
Increased incidence and death from colorectal cancer in African Americans is likely a consequence of lower rates of screening, as well as environmental, socioeconomic and lifestyle factors. Reduction of the disparities may depend upon addressing these factors.
Screening can prevent colorectal cancer
Screening for colorectal cancer not only detects the disease but is also highly effective in preventing it. Screening can readily identify precancerous growths called polyps, as well as early-stage cancers. These often can be removed before they progress to life-threatening stages.
In addition, research is underway to find new methods for colorectal cancer screening based upon analysis of easily obtained body fluids such as blood and urine.
Based upon the knowledge that about 90% of colorectal cancer cases occurs in those 50 and over, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends that screening should begin at age 50 for those who have no predisposing symptoms. This population is experiencing the decrease in colorectal cancer incidence and death that is currently being observed overall.
But screening is not typically recommended for those under 50, and most health insurers do not pay for screening in this group.
This lack of screening, combined with a general lack of awareness about colorectal cancer and its symptoms among young people can result in late diagnoses. Later diagnoses can often result in more advanced stages of the disease, when it is harder to treat and significantly more lethal.
There is also a need to increase screening in the African American community. At present, recommendations vary. In contrast to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the CDC, the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force recommends that screening in African Americans should begin at age 45 rather than 50. I hope these influential organizations will reach a consensus on this issue.
Sorting out the causes of age and race disparities in colorectal cancer incidences and mortalities, and understanding the nature of the disease more thoroughly, will take time.
As Boseman’s untimely death reminds us, colorectal cancer is a difficult and emotional disease for all people at any age. Awareness of signs and symptoms, along with engagement in screening as appropriate, will lead to the eventual eradication of the disease as a major form of cancer.