Kansas state senator rails against talk of systemic racism at tense and confusing hearing

The exchange was tense and confusing, taking up several perplexing minutes during a Sept. 22 hearing.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, chairman of the Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services and KanCare Oversight, heard something he didn't like during the day's testimony, which focused on maternal health.

“That terminology of racism is being thrown around way, entirely too much," he said. “If you have information that they are doing this, we need to know this and correct it. But if you're just basing that assertion off of data, and saying it has to be systematic racism causing this outcome, that is not accurate."

Information presented at the hearing, as reported by Kansas Reflector's Noah Taborda, showed stark racial disparities for our state's moms. According to the 2020 March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card for 2016-18, Black women had a premature birth rate that was 51% higher than for all other women, at 13.6%. The Kansas Maternal Mortality Report for that same time showed Black women suffered 14% of pregnancy-linked deaths, but they were responsible for only 7.1% Kansas births.

Compelling figures apparently weren't enough for Hilderbrand to see systemic or institutional racism at work.

“I don't want research studies," he said. “I want, if you're going to accuse somebody of being racist, I want a specific instance of a (managed care organization) treating someone in a racist way. That way this committee can act on that, because there's no place for that type of action. And there is no place to be calling someone racist when they're not. There are two steps. If you cannot provide specific data on this, please, in the future, do not just call somebody systematic racist."

In other words, he doesn't want data. He wants data instead.

For some, the word racism may summon up visions of robed Klansmen, burning crosses or crowds protesting school integration. But discrimination against people based on their color or ethnic origin doesn't require violence, and it doesn't require individual bad acts. Indeed, racism remains pervasive throughout society because too few Americans are willing to see the systems they're part of and how they perpetuate inequitable outcomes.

The definitive Diversity Style Guide, sponsored in part by the Society of Professional Journalists, defines institutional racism in this way: “When policies and practices put people who are not of the dominant race at a disadvantage. This happens in government, business, education at all levels, news and entertainment media and other systems. Housing policies that turn away single parents, parents with more children or people with lower incomes can be forms of institutional racism. Hiring and promotion patterns can reflect institutional racism. … When people say an institution is racist, they may not be referring to intent, but to the structures and policies of the institution."

If one group of Americans is raised in lower-income neighborhoods and has less access to high quality education or health care, those Americans are going to struggle more. If another group of Americans make more money, live among other well-off people, and go to the finest schools and see the top doctors, they are going to succeed more. That's just common sense.

All of this can be seen through a simple tool from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation. Type in your address, and you can see your likely life expectancy. We are products of our surroundings, both in our early years and as adults.

Most importantly, we don't create these outcomes as individuals. No single person is a “systemic racist."

None of us set out to make one place worse than another. Most of us don't build our neighborhoods or create their schools. We don't conjure up others' family backgrounds or economic prospects. We don't decide whether a family has access to healthy food or prenatal care. All we have to do to allow injustice to continue is what we're already doing: Sit back and let events take their course.

That's modern injustice. That's why so many white folks today are complicit in allowing our fellow human beings to suffer.

More striking examples came from the Reflector's senior reporter, Tim Carpenter, last week. His story about the state foster care system spotlighted striking racial differences. Nationally, 53% of Black families face abuse or neglect investigations, while only 28% of white families do. Black kids in Kansas go into the foster care system at twice the rate of white kids. Experiences are different even inside the system, with Black kids moving more frequently and less likely to reunite with their families.

Let's make some obvious statements. Black people are not less fit parents than white people. Black mothers are not more likely to risk their own health or their infants' health. Black people want the same success in life as everyone else.

If these things are true, then how can we explain the stark disparities in the data? If we can't call these disparities what they are — dark threads of racism sewn into the fabric of our state — how can we hope to make positive change? We have to look at the information and call it what it is to summon the courage it takes to eradicate such shameful legacies.

The uncomfortable exchange at the KanCare meeting included attempts to educate Hilderbrand, a Republican from Galena, but he was less than eager to learn.

“Then in (the) future, as long as I am sitting as a chairperson, if you present testimony calling someone a racist, an organization a racist, anybody else a racist, you will not be allowed to testify," he said toward the end of the dialogue.

That would be a shame. Understanding and calling out systemic and institutional racism is essential for creating a state where everyone benefits. No one person created this situation, and no one person can end it. We have to work together, with clear eyes and open hearts.

That includes state senators.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Plenty of hokum, grift and conspiracy mongering at Kansas anti-vax medicine show

The same day that US. deaths from COVID-19 passed the toll of the Spanish flu pandemic, a modern-day medicine show rolled into Lenexa.
Like the entertainments of old, this medicine show boasted cure-alls, rousing oratory, and shameless self promotion. Unlike those showcases, it didn't sell high-octane patent medicine to get you drunk or high. Speakers proffered a new generation of cures: ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, the Republican Party. Don't forget the grift: The “Freedom Revival in the Heartland" charged concert ticket prices of $89 per person.

The Sept. 20 confab wasn't just about fictitious vaccine dangers, though. Oh, no. That would be too focused for a medicine show, then or now. The day's event was also about government overreach, the redeeming power of religion and Black Lives Matter protesters. Disjointed, perhaps. Hard to follow, absolutely. That was the point of the exercise — keeping the audience terrified, ready to both buy and believe. At least they had raffles and food trucks.

Let's listen to a few raised voices from the day's entertainment, ably captured by the Kansas Reflector's Tim Carpenter. (You can watch the event here, but I wouldn't recommend doing so without a bottle of Scotch nearby.)

  • Lee Merritt, orthopedic surgeon from Iowa: “If you think we're fighting a virus, you're going to be a victim. If you understand that we're fighting a war, then you have a chance at survival."
  • Kansas state Sen. Mike Thompson, Johnson County Republican: “They don't want to hear the facts. It is purely about control. It is purely about money. I'm sick and tired of it."
  • Del Bigtree, from the CBS show “The Doctors": “They could still only push this virus to a death rate of less than a quarter of 1%. This was a Nothingburger."
  • Karladine Graves, family medicine physician in Kansas City, Missouri: “We are on a quest to save humanity. Don't let them take your reasoning. Don't be intimidated by the enemy."
  • Doug Billings, host of “The Right Side" podcast: “You have a generation of people who will burn and topple cities and statues and try to crucify Jesus in the public square."

I don't know how a rational person could respond to some of these statements, let alone figure out how they connect to the pandemic. I do know that lifesaving, free vaccines have a lot less to do with power and control than these speakers imagine. For that matter, the COVID death rate in the United States works out to be 1.6%. But facts aren't the point.

What unites these speakers is a queasy combination of gumption and nihilism, of big talk mixed with denial, of chest thumping shot through with apocalyptic visions of a woke future. Meanwhile, they ignore the fact that modern medicine and health care have built the foundations of our society.

None of the speakers, regardless of hyperbole, is rushing to give that up.

When the original medicine shows were popular, let's say 1890, the average U.S. lifespan was 44 years. Diseases struck children and adults down in their prime, with doctors helpless to intervene. Prayer and booze were all they had.

In the 130 years since, our life expectancy has shot up to nearly 79 years. Once-fatal diseases have been all but eliminated — thanks to vaccinations and other treatments — and we enjoy a standard of living our forebears could only dream about.

Which brings us to one high-profile guest of this medicine show. In 1890, he might have been called the “professor," the storyteller who knit the whole evening together.

Today, we simply call him Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state and current candidate for attorney general. Defeated in runs for governor and U.S. Senate, Kobach knows all about failing upward, about taking a losing situation and making it sound preordained. Like the professors of old, he gets the grift.

He understands a crowd eager to be exploited.

“There's also an inner freedom fighter in so many politicians, and in so many people, and the people in this room," Kobach said, hyping up the crowd with a term suggesting insurgency against oppressors. “Because many people who never would have gone to a rally, never would have done anything remotely political, (want) to stand up and show up and fight for themselves and their family and their friends and neighbors."

Kobach said the U.S. Constitution defended against vaccine mandates (it doesn't — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue more than a century ago) and implied that he was among the virtuous unvaccinated who packed the church.

That's concerning. Kobach is a type 1 diabetic and only alive and healthy today because of breakthroughs in medicine. Given his diagnosis, which puts him at higher risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes, I certainly hope his talk of “us unvaccinated" was gentle fibbing. His family deserves to have their husband and father present and healthy.

Kobach was key, though, the man who united the flimflam of the past with the pretensions of the present. He's more than willing to benefit from medical technology while exploiting partisan divides and disinformation for personal gain. Like him, the folks behind this modern-day medicine show pandered to a room full of scared people while enjoying the lives that science, medicine and technology have made possible.

They may think they're doing good, or at least not promoting harm. But the grim total reached that Monday — more than 675,000 American lives lost to COVID-19 — proved otherwise.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas attorney general should stop playing footsie with fascism

Let's talk about Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt for a moment.

He's tall. He's folksy. He has a decent chance of becoming the next governor of Kansas. And he has a distressing history of playing footsie with fascism, catering to the worst impulses of his party. Sure, the A.G. is the state's “chief legal officer and top law enforcement official." But Schmidt, shall we say, goes above and beyond.

Let's connect some dots.

Item one: Schmidt joins a brief supporting a Texas lawsuit that could overturn the 2020 presidential election and the will of a clear majority of Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court quickly rejects the case, but the implications are staggering.

Item two: A Jan. 6 demonstration at the U.S. Capitol turns into an attempted insurrection, delaying the counting of electoral votes. Robocalls promoting the march were placed by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, of which Schmidt was a former director. He left its board in August 2020.

Item three: As reported last week, two of Schmidt's top lieutenants attend a conference in September 2020 where discussion includes “war games" in response to a potential Biden win. The conference was, incidentally, organized by that same Rule of Law Defense Fund.

Item four: After Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez pledges not to enforce a law that led to the cancelation of voter registration drives across the state, Schmidt promises to do so instead. His “election integrity" rhetoric furthers the Big Lie that election malfeasance is a serious problem.

Item five: Schmidt's office agrees to pay $1.9 million in legal costs to the ACLU and associated lawyers for their challenge to former Secretary of State Kris Kobach's signature (and unconstitutional) voter ID law. Schmidt had defended the law after Kobach lost an embarrassing trial.

What do all of these items have in common? They support undemocratic goals. They either directly prop up disgraced former President Donald Trump or bolster the narrative behind his insane efforts to overturn the last presidential election.

We now know that Trump came closer to accomplishing his aims than anyone suspected at the time. Those who enabled this behavior bear a portion of the responsibility. As you scan through the list above, ask yourself what portion Schmidt might bear.

The attorney general has been quick to respond to bad press with soothing comments. After the Texas lawsuit was shut down, he said “it is time to put this election behind us." The insurrection was “sickening, shameful, inexcusable and counterproductive," and the robocalls at issue earned his “disappointment and strong disapproval," according to a spokesman. The “war games"? According to the same spokesman, they were simply to “discuss potential legal responses of state attorneys general offices to regulations or similar federal government actions that were likely to occur in a potential Biden administration." As to the voter engagement efforts, “citizens throughout our state deserve assurance that state election integrity laws will be enforced." And so on.

The words sound good. But actions speak more loudly.

Here's the tough truth.

A segment of Republican leaders no longer believe their party can consistently win nationwide, majority votes. Its policies are unpopular with broad swaths of Americans. And they have little desire to revamp its platform or appeal to folks who don't look or think as they do. So they have instead decided to tear down our system of elected government. This means draconian voting restrictions, legislatures possibly overturning election results, and if worse comes to worse, the encouragement of armed goons to do a strongman's bidding.

Some Republican leaders have resisted this. A tiny minority truly believe it and are clinically bonkers. But many, many others throughout the party have found it more convenient to go with the flow. These folks have long-term career paths and perhaps see this as a bit of harmless flirting on their way to higher office.

Schmidt has a clear route to the GOP nomination for Kansas governor. He doesn't have to go with the flow anymore. He can — and should — move his foot away from under the table, stand up and speak truth to those in his party. Trump did not win the presidency. There is no meaningful election fraud, in Kansas or anywhere else. And Republicans should not welcome members who seek to overturn democratic elections.

We need his voice not to make excuses but to defend truth.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Disinformation caucus of Kansas GOP spreads dangerous falsehoods about COVID-19

Elected officials owe their constituents more than representation. They owe them the truth.

That's proven to be a challenge in the age of COVID-19, with reactions to a public health crisis polarized along partisan lines. One party has largely followed medical experts and their advice, while the other has created a disinformation caucus, putting Kansans' lives at risk with deceitful rhetoric and poisonous lies.

These aren't tall tales about a president's birthplace. These aren't salacious rumors about adultery or past membership in the Communist Party. These are outright conspiracy theories — supported by coded language from politicians who should know better — that have led to Kansans refusing lifesaving vaccines and masks. Each statement builds on the others, creating a self-reinforcing narrative that has fueled wave upon pandemic wave.

Not every Republican is to blame, but elected leaders across Kansas eagerly signed up for the disinformation caucus, repeatedly spreading rumors, distortions and delusional fantasies. Let's take a look at what they have to say.

Kansas Rep. Bill Rhiley, R-Wellington, on his Facebook page, April 22: “Employees of these Hospitals, Costcos, Lowes, Restaurants, Mental Health Centers, Clinics, and other businesses that are requiring masks should get lung xrays after wearing mask for a year. They might find that their lungs are enlarged, and have COPD like conditions from breathing Carbon Dioxide by for a year."

It might interest Rhiley to know that face masks existed before 2020. Indeed, both medical personnel and civilians have worn them for decades. Think about this just for a second: Doctors often wear face masks for lengthy shifts, throughout their careers. Don't you think they would notice any enlarged lungs or COPD-like conditions?

Face masks don't limit oxygen, and carbon dioxide disperses through the mask. They are worn by health providers and recommended to the public for a simple reason: Masks reduce your chance of spreading or catching a contagious respiratory disease.

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, in a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly, Aug. 25: “Varying opinions exist in the medical community when it comes to masks. In fact, some local health care professionals have said not requiring masks will allow a slow return of letting our bodies learn to internally fight diseases and allow our immune systems to work, particularly when paired with vaccination."

Being speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives is a big job. You lead one of two chambers in the Legislature, shape laws and take potshots at the governor. Who has time to study medical consensus on masks and whether they protect people from COVID?

Ryckman can thank the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for doing just that.

Its latest mask guidance is clear: “To maximize protection from the delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission." (Nearly all of Kansas is an area of substantial or high transmission).

Kansas Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, on his Facebook page, June 12: “Fauci, big tech, government agencies (national, state, and local), and doctors (one in particular in Hutchinson) conspired to block early treatment with HCQ and ivermectin. This conspiracy killed tens to hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Manslaughter or premeditated murder? The Courts will decide."

Consider, for a moment, what this post suggests.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci somehow plotted with companies like Facebook and Google; government bureaucracies in Washington, D.C., Topeka and your own hometown; along with health care providers across the nation, to suppress lifesaving treatments for COVID-19. And they conspired to do so, meaning that many thousands secretly schemed to harm Americans. Was any of this intentional? At least Steffen envisions a role for the judicial branch: “The Courts will decide." This is, frankly, nuts.

Alas, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin don't appear to help COVID-19 patients. It would be great if they could! Studies have been conducted, but the results unfortunately fell short. That's not a conspiracy. That's how research is supposed to work.

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, in his newsletter, Aug.6: “Nothing about these recommendations makes sense. Mask mandates have not been shown to be effective and healthy children have had few issues with COVID."

Hawkins is dead wrong. Mask mandates have saved Kansans' lives. Multiple studies — including those from the CDC and University of Kansas researchers — have shown the policy limits cases and deaths. Perhaps Hawkins disagrees with mandates from an ideological perspective, but as those from his party have often proclaimed, facts don't care about your feelings.

We can have legitimate debates about the effects of COVID on children. But again, facts are facts. Kansas has recorded 234 pediatric hospitalizations and two deaths since the pandemic's start. On Aug. 9, a peak of 29 kids were hospitalized across the state. The numbers may be small, but the children are real.

Kansas Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, on his Facebook page, Aug. 18: “Our liberties are in serious jeopardy over a non-FDA approved pathogen stimulating gene sequence [the vaccine]. And, some people are getting seriously ill unnecessarily because they are not given life-saving FDA approved off-label drugs that are inexpensive and available."

The FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine on Aug. 23. But I didn't see a follow-up post from Thompson urging his readers to take the vaccine (which, it should go without saying, doesn't change your DNA). As for stimulating pathogens, experts agree that we face the biggest threat in unvaccinated people, who are breeding grounds for further variants.

As for the supposed lifesaving, off-label drugs, please see above. We haven't seen evidence supporting use of either hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin. You know what we've seen overwhelming evidence for around the globe? The success of COVID-19 vaccines.

U.S. Sen Roger Marshall on FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, Aug. 23: “I encourage you to talk to your doctor about the benefits associated with getting the shot and to determine if getting this fully approved vaccine is right for you."

The multi-titled Lord Rev. Sir Sen. Dr. Roger Marshall, Esq., has a medical background. He knows COVID-19 vaccines work and has cut an ad supporting them. But with GOP political winds blowing against common sense, his latest statement falls short.

Why? Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control for the University of Kansas Health System, put it this way in an online update last week (50:40): “In those cases where there are physicians not recommending getting dosed with the vaccine, either to you or your loved ones or your children, it's probably time to seek other providers. It would just worry me on what other complex issues they are not up to date with the current evidence, and what the current evidence supports for keeping you and your family safe."

Elected officials have a responsibility to their constituents. But voters have a responsibility too, to watch and listen to those officials.

When the next Election Day rolls around, remember the actions of those who purport to represent you. Did they tell you the truth? Did they strive to stop preventable illness and death?

Or did they treat the truth with the same disdain as they treated Kansans' health?

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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