May 19, 2013
Guests: Irin Carmon, Rose-Ellen Lessy, Monica Peek, Kassen Silver, Dorian Warren, Scott Ross, Andy Chan, Valarie Kaur, Victoria Bachan, Brittany Brathwaite
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, MSNBC ANCHOR: This morning, my question what is the
real cost of a burger and fries?
And congratulations class of 2013. It`s kind of a mess out here.
Plus, President Obama speaks at more house college, but first your genes,
your breasts and the choices that women face.
Good morning. I`m Melissa Harris-Perry.
It was hard to ignore the three most notable items in the news this week.
No, I`m not talking about Benghazi, the justice department subpoenas and
the IRS tea party targeting. I`m talking about Angelina Jolie and her left
and right breasts. She and they were everywhere after we woke up to a
Tuesday morning "New York Times" editorial from Jolie about her difficult
decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy to reduce her
likelihood of developing breast cancer.
Now, Jolie knew exactly the odd she was facing after the result of genetic
test revealed that she had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer
and a 50 percent risk of getting the ovarian cancer that killed her mother
at age 56.
Jolie`s tests came back positive for a mutation on a gene known as BRCA1 or
BRCA1. BRCA1, the -- and another gene called BRCA2 are tumor suppressors
that work by preventing uncontrolled growth of cells. Mutations on these
genes like the one found in Jolie`s tests exponentially increase breast
cancer risk. A woman who has inherited the flaw in the BRCA1 or BRCA2
genes is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman
without the mutation.
Now, it is I terrifying possibility to consider both for woman who have
tested positive and for women who haven`t taken the test but fear what may
be lurking in their DNA. Jolie said she was motivated to share her story
by a desire to help women face that fear through empowering themselves with
information. She wrote quote "I chose not to keep my story private because
there are many women who do not know that they may be living under the
shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they too will be able to get gene
test and that if they have a high risk, they too will know they have strong
Only women who carry genes with the BRCA mutation aren`t the only
beneficiaries of the test. So too, the company that owns the exclusive
rights to their genes. Myriad genetics, a solicsity (ph) biotech company
has owned the patent on BRCA1 since 1997 and BRCA2 since 1998.
You thought your body belonged to you? Think again. Because every copy of
each BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene in every cell of my body and yours belongs to a
private company. So, does all the information those genes may be able to
tell us about our health.
And while those genes are just hanging out inside your cells doing what
genes do, they are busy making myriad genetics a lot of money. The patents
give the company the sole right to BRCA analysis that Angelina Jolie test.
And along with an estimated one million people have decided to take it in
the past decade since myriad was awarded the patents. And with no
competition, myriad is free to set a single price for women who want to
find out if they have a mutation. Any woman wanting to take the test,
should be prepared to shell out $3,000.
Now, the affordable care act will allow patients to take the test at no
cost as part of coverage for preventative care. But that`s only for non-
grandfathered plans. In other words, those that existed after March 23,
2010. Grandfathered plans in place before that date are exempt from the AC
requirements for preventative coverage without co-sharing.
Meanwhile, all of the tests add up to half a billion dollars each year in
revenue for myriad genetics. The company`s stock jumped up to a three-year
high after Jolie`s editorial on Tuesday. And that`s just one company
profiting from two genes. In the decade since the human genome project map
the 25,000 genes that makes us who we are, more than 4,000 have been
snatched up and patented. That`s nearly 20 percent of the genome, 4,000
tiny pieces of ourselves that are not fully ours.
Myriad`s monopoly landed the company in the Supreme Court last month where
the justices took up this essential question of whether a private company
can claim ownership of something that`s a product of nature, in this case
the building blocks of our very being.
The answer for now at least is yes. Myriad is still the only game in town
for women who want to follow Jolie`s advice and take the test. But perhaps
as we consider the unsettling understanding that our bodies are not wholly
our own, there is something else instructive in Jolie`s example about the
integrity of our bodies.
In Jolie, we see a woman who makes a living in large part due to the
appearance of her physical body. Making the choice to lose precious parts
of it but still remaining fully whole.
Joining me now, Dr. Monica Peek, assistant professor of medicine at the
University of Chicago, also a founder and executive director of women`s
health advocacy group, sisters working it out. She`s a breast cancer
survivor herself. Rose-Ellen Lessy, assistant professor a New School, also
Irin Carmon, staff writer for salon.com and Valerie Kaur, director of Brown
12 and a political commentator and a senior fellow at Auburn Seminary.
Thanks to all of you for being here.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks for having us.
HARRIS-PERRY: Doctor, I want to start with you. Help me to understand a
little bit exactly what the BRCA gene is. You know, it is obviously seen
in the news because of Angelina Jolie. What do people need to know about
DOCTOR MONICA PEEK, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO:
Well, it is something that it`s not a routine test available for all women.
So, when we think about population based on breast cancer screening, it`s
very uncommon. Ninety percent of the women who had breast cancer do not
any sort of inherited mutation. So, we should not think this is a routine
test like for diabetes or for high cholesterol. So, we should not expect
that everyone should be wanting to have a BRCA gene mutation test for that.
Of the tests that we know exists, BRCA1 and 2 are the most common. Certain
racial ethnics groups tend to be mostly to have them, African-Americans so
far are not. (INAUDIBLE) Jewish women are. We know when you have the
gene, like you have said, the increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer
is much higher than the average population. But the genome genes are very
And so, it really is incumbent for women to know their own personal history
and family`s history and work with a genetic counselor to figure out and
really who is at risk for that gene. What normally happens the person who
is diagnosed with breast cancer is one who gets tested not the family
members. So, if you have a family member with ovarian cancer or breast
cancer that and still living, they are the ones who need to get tested for
the BCRA gene. If they don`t have it, it is not in you gene.
HARRIS-PERRY: There`s not a reason to think it`s in your family.
So Rose, I want to go to you in part because you have had this test
ROSE-ELLEN LESSY, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, NEW SCHOOL: Yes.
HARRIS-PERRY: In part because of your own family history.
LESSY: That`s correct.
HARRIS-PERRY: And yet, you still see access as a fundamental problem.
LESSY: I do. I feel like three to $4,000 test, as you said, is completely
out of reach for anyone who doesn`t have quality health care insurance.
When I took the test, I did have insurance and it covered most of the test
except for $150 deductible. But at the same time, I think there`s a
pervasive testing anxiety right now so that women who perhaps are not
actually good candidates to take the test might nonetheless feel that they
should. And those are women who certainly would not get the test covered
through their insurance.
HARRIS-PERRY: This is probably why -- I mean, this is why the stock jumped
up. Because all of the sudden you think particularly, there`s enough of a
question around mammograms, right. But all of a sudden you hear there`s
another test, I better go out and get that.
LESSY: Right. And my concern is that then myriad genetics who has a legal
monopoly over this test is going to unfairly profit from stoking the
anxiety among women who, again, are not at high risk and don`t need to take
the test, by certain and making them think they do need to take the test.
There`s an unfortunate corporate profit to be made from stoking anxiety and
perhaps failing to differentiate between who is high risk and who isn`t.
HARRIS-PERRY: And Irin, you wrote about this week in the wake of Jolie`s
decision on exactly this question. It`s a tough one. On the one hand, you
know, we both need to applaud Jolie`s personal courage but also the ways in
which, whenever you have this celebrity endorsement, it allows information
to get out that might not otherwise be there. But then there is this issue
of profit margin and who really most benefits from these tests.
IRIN CARMON, STAFF WRITER, SALON.COM: So, the medical professionals and
the ACLU who brought the case in the Supreme Court, legal arguments were
heard in April. Specifically made the case that not only does the gene
patent limit the kind of research that can happen. It limits the kind of
results you can get because it can only go through myriad`s laboratories.
It means you can`t get a second opinion.
And the last portion of their argument, their brief says it has a
disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. One, because the
genetic variants isn`t captured on studies. And two, because we all know
there`s an existing framework of healthcare disparities. This is not in a
vacuum. This is going to be governed by the same principles of who has
insurance, who has what kind of insurance you have and what trust in the
medical system. And as a result, there have been several studies showing
that there are significant disparities who gets the genetic counseling to
determine who takes the test.
HARRIS-PERRY: And I don`t want to miss this point that you just made which
is you can`t -- there isn`t a second test. There isn`t a second opinion.
You can take the test again, right? But that is really very different.
And that`s all because of the nature of the patent.
Is there a moral and ethical obligation that we not patent the genes or --
and how do we sort of put that against, you know, on the other hand, the
kind of economic benefit that comes from when you have a private company
that makes profit, then they do work on this issue.
VALERIE KAUR, WRITER, FILMMAKER: Right. I think this is an opportunity
for us to think about how stories can affect social change so that these
kinds of benefits can be available to all women. We are talking about
Angelina`s story not just because she is a celebrity, but because her story
is powerful. I mean, it has resonance. Stories can save us. Stories can
inspire us to see ourselves differently. And not just women with cancer.
One of my dearest friends, Joyce, is someone who is from a low-income
background who is diagnosed with multiple myeloma this year. I watched her
struggle every day to fight for the health care she need for a disease that
does not get as much attention as breast cancer. For us, you know, among
anyone I thought she would be the one who would be put off by the spotlight
on a celebrity. But Joyce was inspired. She said Angelina looked bravely
into the unknown and took action. We women can be the heroes of our own
I think our job now at the table is to think about how stories can affect
social change, how we can fight for a world where all women like Joyce have
the opportunity to as courageous as Angelina Jolie. How our health care
system can work for all of not just those who afford it.
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. When we come back, there is so much more on breast
cancer. I want to talk about mammograms. I want to talk also specifically
about things you both brought up which is that kind of health disparities
and what kinds of groups are shut out of this whole story.
So more on breast cancer in black and white when we come back.
HARRIS-PERRY: This year an estimated 230,000 women will be diagnosed with
breast cancer. Nearly 40,000 of those women will lose their battle with
the disease. But the heredity genetics that took up the spotlight this
week are in fact only a small part of the risk factors that will determine
who will receive that diagnosis and who will go on survive it.
As it turns out, your risk is determined as much what is in your body as
the environment that your body is in. A 2010 study that examined racial
disparities in breast cancer mortality rates between 1980 and 2005 found
few differences in breast cancer desk between white and black women for the
first decade and half of the study.
Then in the early 1990s, researchers noticed a curious trend. Mortality
rates for white women declined and the rates for African-American women
stayed consistent. The continuation of the trend find us where we are
today. According to the centers for disease control and prevention, while
breast cancer deaths are going down for white women compared to women of
all of the races, African-American patients have the highest breast cancer
death rates among all women.
And although the incidents of breast cancer remains higher among white
women, African-American women are 40 percent more likely to die from it.
So Dr. Peek, this is so much of the work that you do.
HARRIS-PERRY: What is causing the racial health disparities?
PEEK: A lot of people want to focus on potential differences in tumor
biology and potential genetic genetics. And I think that there is
something to be said about that story. I think the real story is one about
our society and our health care system and how we are treating women as
they get diagnosed, if they get screened, diagnosed and followed through
the treatment trajectory.
We see this in other situations. Whenever we have new technology, new
treatments, anything that`s new that comes out, there is a potential for
creating disparities. So that those who have money, power, influence know
the mayor, can have access to better health care than those who don`t.
And so, as we have better ways of diagnosing breast cancer with more
treatments that come out, then populations who are more affluent and
advantaged can take advantage of those and start see decreases in breast
cancer mortality while others get left behind. And this is the story that
we are seeing.
HARRIS-PERRY: And you know, and the fact that the race story maps on,
literally maps on to a map story that there`s a geographic story to this as
well that Chicago where you work is one of the kind of hotspots of
mortality, but also that we see the very high rates of mortality through
the U.S. south, through places where African-American women often are
living in poverty and simply don`t have a lot of access to health care.
PEEK: Right. Exactly.
And when you look at some of the national studies, they will suggest that
the rates between black women and white women are the same for mammogram
screening. But there is a lot of reason to question the studies. And one
of them are telephone based. Not all black people have a telephone. That
the ways that they`re sampling patients really makes a lot of us call into
question, the validity of the findings that they are equal mammography
And then that`s just at the very beginning. We also have questions about
differences in quality of mammograms that people have, the differences in
quality of treatment, the access to treatment and once there, the kinds of
quality of treatment. And so, breast cancer should not be or is not
different than other health disparities primarily like diabetes. We see
this in cancer disease, we see this in diabetes, heart disease, HIV. There
is significant health disparities in both the kinds of care that women
receive and the outcomes they have in this country by race.
HARRIS-PERRY: Now, I mean, one of the pieces of good news about that,
though, if it isn`t genetic, if it is social and political, then it`s
actionable. What are some of the things we need to be thinking about as we
move forward in terms of breast cancer and these racial disparities?
KAUR: So, it`s important to note that, of all women today, white women are
most likely to receive a diagnosis for breast cancer. Asian women are the
least likely to screen for it and black women most likely to die from it.
And as you said, this is true, we are seeing this trend across disease when
is it comes to prevention and early detection. That does mean it`s
In my own life, I struggled for four years with excruciating pain before I
finally got the diagnosis for advanced endometriosis. Many women have to
see five doctors weight eight to eleven years before they receive a
diagnosis. And what I discovered that it`s not just economic barriers, but
it is a culture that causes women, especially young women, especially women
of color, to feel shame about their bodies. To feel shame about their
bodies` dysfunctions. But if our bodies are not sex symbols or baby
makers, we have a hard time seeing that they have worth in and of
themselves. And so, it`s about culture where doctors and medical
practitioners and communities are able to encourage women to seek out the
help that they need.
CARMON: I think that`s one reason that Angelina Jolie`s op-ed resonated.
And Melissa, (INAUDIBLE) have this great posed about how Angelina Jolie`s
body is seen as collective property as you have mentioned. She is this
international sex symbol. She has a body that`s the auto I deal of our
And so, for her to say I`m both making my body very public. I`m putting
all of my choices up in public for scrutiny of other people and I`m also
saying this belongs to me. Here`s how I chose to make these decisions.
That said, you know, I think the specificity of Angelina`s case, you
mentioned, not all breast cancer is caused by this gene mutation. Not all
women have chosen the double mastectomy choice which is a radical choice.
And it`s a specific choice because she has a very high and vey unambiguous
result to her test.
So, I think as much as the single stories are incredibly resonate and it`s
incredibly brave to open up the world`s scrutiny to her decisions and not
everybody has access to that care, even once you have access to the care,
there is such a spectrum of choices you can make, all of which, are very
few of which are unambiguous.
HARRIS-PERRY: And you know, as part of what you guys are talking about,
about choices and bodies, you know, one of the tensions here that I`ve also
been thinking about, we keep talking about her breast but not about her
ovaries, right? The other piece of this having lost a parent to ovarian
cancer and BCRA will increase the likelihood of ovarian cancer her. And I
wonder if there`s something about breast that is we think of public
property and less shameful in part because there`s been such a push around
breast cancer research for the past sort of 20-some odd years where it`s
become more public. But, to talk about endometriosis here because I had a
hysterectomy in 2008 as a result of fibroid, which many African-American
suffer with from to talk about uteruses or to talk about ovaries is still
something we don`t do so much.
CARMON: And she is having her ovaries removed. But, news came out later,
I`m not really sure chose to sort roll it out. But obviously, you know,
that is-- it is a very deadly cancer, but common but it is much deadlier
and that has been completely sort of obscure in all of this conversation.
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. And yet ovarian cancer might also be something we
would want to be talking about with BRCA.
LESSY: Right, absolutely. Because ovarian cancer is a cancer that it is
extremely difficult to screen for.
LESSY: It tends to be detected at a very late stage. And that makes it
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. The mortality rates are much higher. Stay with us.
We are going to talk more about this, but specifically about the pink
washing of breast cancer and how that might be both good and bad for what`s
going on in America.
HARRIS-PERRY: Corporations claiming ownership of cancer genes aren`t the
only ones cashing in on the commercial potential of the disease. Every
year during national breast cancer awareness month, Susan G. Komen,
America`s largest breast cancer awareness organization and a branding BMOF
(ph) hopes to make the month of October profitable for all things pink.
The organization has been at the forefront of removing the stigma and shame
from speaking openly about breast cancer. But it is also opened the door
for anyone to turn a profit and paint themselves with the patina of concern
for women`s health by painting themselves with a coat of pink. Even if
only a minuscule portion of that profit goes to breast cancer research and
the pink ribbon is covering up a distinct lack of love for the ladies.
Take this example from Peggy Ornstein`s "The New York Times" magazine cover
story where she describes one such addition to the cancer bandwagon writing
and this blew me away. The one from the Web site called porn hub that
would donate a penny to a breast cancer charity for every 30 views of its
big or small breast videos. Yes.
CARMON: OK. So, those are the ones that are causing environmental risks
in communities that may lead to cancer and their pink washing as well. And
then it goes even further, even more of a direct link to cancer and pink
HARRIS-PERRY: And on watching, like this is -- the common is the great
example of taking a disease that, you know, if you think about Betty Ford
(ph) coming out, talking about having breast cancer at a time and it was
shameful and it was silenced, women dying because of that shame and
silence. Komen brings it into the open and then even in so doing, you
know, generates all of these other negative, you know, extranalitist (ph).
What did you think of "The New York Times" piece? Particularly the
critiques of mammography that were there.
PEEK: Right. So, I think there are two issues. One, has to do with the
education and awareness and are we having over awareness and then the pink
washing. We see the same thing with environmental movements and green
washing. And so, just because something has a good idea doesn`t mean
you`re not going to have people with bad intentions take advantage of that.
And so, we shouldn`t expect that somehow the breast cancer movement would
be isolated from the things that `r seeing. That`s to be taken as a given.
The other is just the idea of one who have accurate information. And so,
certain communities may be over informed. But really the question is
whether or not this is information or misinformation. And so, I think that
a lot of times people will have different perceptions of what they`re
hearing. They may not hear it, but they internalize it differently. So,
for example, what I mean is that if you ask a number of women what your
personal breast cancer risk is, they say 40 percent. (INAUDIBLE).
And really the risk is 15 percent for the average woman, but it doesn`t
mean, so, I consider that to be misinformation. But it doesn`t mean that
all of the things that we see are permeating into some of the most needy
communities. So, I spend most of my time working in very poor, very
African-American neighborhoods in Chicago. And I do this all the time.
And the questions that I get routinely reflect a significant lack of
information about resources and education and what is out there in the
world. And so we have some populations in our country that may have too
much information, may not be dealing appropriately with the information and
then we have sub pockets that actually still need more information.
PEEK: And so, when we make grand sweeps about what`s appropriate for this
country, we really need to understand heritage that exists amongst women,
particularly vulnerable women with access to this information.
HARRIS-PERRY: Listen. I think that`s such a great point.
Rose-Ellen, I want to talk about mammography, knowing you had the genetic
testing and then trying to think about sort of how people make choices even
about breast self-exams, about mammography and about genetic testing.
Right now, the U.S. preventive services task force actually recommends
against routine screening mammographies (ph) in women age 40 to 49. And
actually, recommends biennial screening mammography for women between 50
and 74. So, only every two years. And yet, that may absolutely not be
enough if you are someone with a likelihood of getting breast cancer much
LESSY: Right. Well, one of the things that or en stein`s piece reminded
me of was the self-breast exam campaign that was launched in my college
dormitory freshman year. And in our, you know, dormitory communal showers
there was one of those cards that hangs on the showerhead reminding you to
do a breast exam in the shower. At 18-years-old, women really don`t need
to be doing self-breast exams. That year my mother was dying of breast
cancer. The last thing I needed when I took a shower was to be reminded of
my breast cancer risk. So there`s a sort of perversity of that campaign
insofar as the only people who are really responding to that campaign are
the people who actually don`t need to be reminded, right? So to me that
seems like a sort of waste of resources.
I think with mammography, and sort of early screening, again, it`s a
question of using those resources more wisely and making sure that
recommendations are specific and tailored to the particular woman and her
particular medical history. And you know, in that sense, I think one of
the problems with some of the Komen campaigns I that it`s a sort of one
size fits all slogan.
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. You know, I got to say, the other problem for me with
Komen this year is just the battle that went on between Komen and Planned
Parenthood and the idea that planned parenthood. And if we are going to
talk about resources and we are going to talk about who does and doesn`t
have access, the idea that planned parenthood provides so much cancer
screening for the poorest women, that when look at what Planned Parenthood
does contraception is a third of it, STD treatment is about 40 percent of
that, abortion is only three percent and cancer screening are about 12
percent of that they are up to. And then Komen chooses not, at least for a
moment, chose not to give their annual money to planned parenthood.
CARMON: Well, Komen is a politicized group that has claimed a nonpolitical
mission. I mean, a very interesting point is that Komen did not join the
lawsuit against myriad genetics because myriad is a donor to Komen. That
was pointed out in a (INAUDIBLE) in a blog post.
There`s also, you know, breast cancer and action group did join this
lawsuit. They don`t accept any sort of corporate sponsorships. One of the
reasons Komen is so powerful is because they have incredible resources from
their corporate partnerships and that also restricts them. They were
subject to pressure by Republicans when you talk about also, is the
mammogram -- when there were new recommendations from HHS on the mammogram
front. Republicans responded by demagoguing (ph) it and saying that they
were rationing care.
All of this is deeply political. When you think about what Planned
Parenthood does. Also, a really important measure of cancer prevention
that Planned Parenthood does is give out the HPV vaccine which is very
important for cervical cancer. That has become demagogue as well with
Michele Bachmann claiming is causes quote-unquote "mental retardation."
So, again, those are actually very preventable diseases that planned
parenthood works on and those are political.
HARRIS-PERRY: Stay right there. We are going to take a break and we are
going to be right back because I want to talk about the diagnosis after the
choices and the reconstruction of lives and of breasts when we come back.
HARRIS-PERRY: Tara is our friend and colleague here at MSNBC. She is also
a breast cancer survivor who has written openly and movingly about her
decision to have a double mastectomy and her experiences with the aftermath
of the disease.
This week she wrote, most importantly, reconstructive surgery is a process.
I don`t know anyone who has it all completed in one shot and not because of
vanity. It`s a road rebuilding the human body that requires a level of
patience and a suspension of disbelief you can`t imagine.
So, this is the part that we talk about less, 1998 is when we saw both the
first U.S. postal service breast cancer stamp and the time when we saw
health insurance that covered mastectomies having to also cover
reconstruction. But I don`t think we have a good sense of what
reconstruction means for women on the other side. What is that part of the
PEEK: It varies for different women depending on what kind of
reconstruction they`re going to have. If their breast cancer is severe,
they may need more radical forms. Because we are finding cancers earlier.
What a lot of women choose do is have a mastectomy is basically an implant
put in that grows the tissue over time so that you don`t have to come back
with a skin flap your skin naturally grows. So, weekly you will have
injections of saline until the implant is big enough that the skin has
grown enough and then you switch it out for a real implant. And so, that`s
an option that takes two surgical procedures and then multiple sorts of
visits in between.
HARRIS-PERRY: Therefore, a lot of intensity of living with the breast
cancer survival. So that there`s all of the living with being the breast
cancer patients and then there`s the kind of constant living with how your
body is fundamentally altered forever.
KAUR: I think that in this case, we can learn from other afflicted
communities who have struggled to use their stories, to enact social change
in their individual lives but across the nations. So, I think of the years
spent by aids activists taking on the health care industry, fighting the
pharmaceutical companies to get access to life-saving medicines. This
whole story was documented in the film how to survive a plague. Those
communities have shown how to survive after fighting a plague. Those
communities have shown what the lessons should be from Jolie`s story, which
is that breaking the silence around these issues is the first step.
The next step is organizing. The next step is making sure that companies
like myriad don`t hold the monopoly over life-saving genetic testing. The
next step is making sure that prevention is possible for all women. Not
just prevention when it comes to mammograms or genetic testing, but
prevention in all forms, making sure that all women have enough hours to
sleep in a day, to get exercise, to have access to whole clean foods, to be
able to care f their own bodies as much as they care for others. To be
able to have the courage to tell their stories. Not just around breast
cancer, which we hear about so much but other diseases like endometriosis
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. And I do feel like there is a way in which for us, our
bodies and the notion of what our bodies are, carries such value, it`s so
connected to who we think we are from adolescence forward, whether we were
thin enough or fit enough or beautiful enough and so then the --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fertile enough.
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. And then, fertile enough, right? the notion that once
you give up your reproductive capacity, that there`s something about that
somehow less womanly, what is the survivor story that you think we ought to
take? What is the story of that for all women whether were dealing
directly with breast cancer or now, we ought to take from Angelina Jolie.
CARMON: Well, I mean, I think, I have a colleague Mary Beth Williams who
has been writing beautifully at salon. I really recommend looking up her
stories about she is undergoing an experimental trial in immunotherapy.
She has stage four metastatic cancer with -- she had melanoma. And she is
constantly writing about the cancer industry on the stories of hope. And
yes, this is about stigma and it is about talking about cancer as something
that should not be shameful.
But something that Mary Beth also says is that, you know unfortunately,
sometimes people die of cancer. And that doesn`t mean that they lost a
fight. It doesn`t mean that they weren`t brave, they didn`t fail. So,
when we construct this as did you have determination?
You know I was reading Jolie`s doctor`s blog post that it said, I think
because she had a positive outlook, she`s doing well. And I think what we
really want to feel like we have this measure of control. And when we try
to think if we do everything perfectly, get the right screening test, if we
get the right reconstruction, we will be whole as people and get to
But you know, we don`t, unfortunately, have the power to control all of
those things. Some people will die and it`s not because they were weak or
did things wrong in every case.
HARRIS-PERRY: I so appreciate that we are going to end the conversation
here in part because I think that is critically important. That it is not
failure to d from breast cancer. That we`re not a control of the whole
thing and I think that`s part of the fear that we have around it. And so,
embracing that reality might also be part of reducing at that fear.
Thank you to Dr. Monica Peek. Please come back to our table again.
Also, to Rose-Ellen Lessy and to Irin Carmon. Valerie is going to be pack.
The real price of a $4 hamburger.
HARRIS-PERRY: It`s the weekend. So many families will sit down tonight to
a home cooked meal. But during the busy week of working schools, many
Americans are going to run out and grab lunch or during the week grab
Burger King, Wendy`s, McDonald`s.
If you`re in Manhattan can expect to pay $4.59 for a Big Mac or $3.99 for a
quarter pounder. Maybe you will add $2.29 for a large order of fries and
$2.49 for a large shake, plus tax. Those are the low prices that you have
come to expect, but part o the special sauce that keeps those prices so low
is not under protest.
Five major cities -- New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and last
Wednesday, Milwaukee have seen fast food workers walk out on the job in
protest of their wages and inability to unionize. That protest in
Milwaukee this past week drew between 150 and 200 workers. According to
estimates by the strikers organizing. That`s a little bit less than the
original strike here in New York drew back in November.
But it was 400 or so fast food workers that walked out in the Detroit metro
area strike earlier this month. $15 an hour as a wage floor is what the
protesters are seeking. The minimum wage they are being paid now starts as
low as the national rate of $7.25 per hour. It`s the same as it was in
2010 when the median food and beverage worker made $18,130 per year. That
means if you`re the sole earner in a family of three, you would have been
at the federal poverty line in 2010, precisely it.
Let`s say you are lucky enough to work at least 40 hours a week. Today, at
minimum wage, in one of these restaurants that`s only $15,080 perfect year.
And if you are one of those workers in Milwaukee, you would find yourself
$00 below the Wisconsin poverty line for a family two. If the minimum wage
went up to $9 an hour, as President Obama has advocated, that annual income
would bump up to only $18,720. Increasing wages to what the striking
workers want $15. That would make a full-time fast food worker`s annual
Now, let`s be clear. That`s the goal. Not great riches for the fry guy at
the McDonald`s, just $31,200. Meanwhile, McDonald global CEO Don Thompson,
after he was promoted last July, his compensation rose to $13.75 million
Well, you what they say after all, billions and billions served. But what
about those doing the serving? One of those fast food workers right here
in New York city is supporting his family on minimum wage. He joins us
HARRIS-PERRY: It looks like excess cells. The new film adaptation of
Scott Fitzgerald`s 19215 novel, "the Great Gatsby" starring Leonardo
DiCaprio and Toby McGuire is on track to pass the $100 million mark at the
box office this weekend. The cinematic exploration of the 1920s era of
decadence of privilege of the spoiled rich gives us the 99 percent economic
divide. Even as Gatsby is playing in multiplexes across the country, a
resurgence of protests is being ignited among the nation`s lowest wage
To date, Fast food workers in five cities have stage high-profile strikes
walking off the job in mask to demand a $15 per hour minimum wage and the
right to unionized.
Columbia University professor, Dorian Warren wrote this past week for
McClatchy (ph) newspapers, how ironic while the film is recreating a past
era of excess and greed, employees in the fast food and retail industries
across the country are engaging in unprecedented strikes over today`s flow
of wealth from working people to the rich.
Joining me now to further dig into that is Dorian Warren, associate
professor of political science at international public affairs Columbia
University and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Scott Ross of Wisconsin
now and Kassen Silver a burger king employee who took part in the strikes
in New York city.
So Kassen, I`m going to start with you. You`ve got kids?
HARRIS-PERRY: You work full-time. How do you support a family on this?
KASSEN SILVER, BURGER KING STAFF: It`s a super challenge. Sincerely
speaking, it`s really impossible by yourself. Three daughters, a wife.
Once I get past my metro card for the week, that`s a necessity to commute.
After that, I`m pretty much broke. Bills, pampers. As far as enjoying the
things like eating lunch maybe somewhere else every day, that`s not in the
budget. Primarily, I have to focus on commuting to work, to get the money
that I use to space out whatever I can. It`s a hard process.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, you know, I feel, Kassen, like a lot of times when
people hear about us talking about fast food workers striking, they think
we are talking about teenagers with their summer jobs. What is it people
need to know about the full-time father and husband working in these
circumstances. What is it that you would need to make this job work for
SILVER: Well, to be candid, of course, as a father and husband, benefits
is essential, you know. Fast food workers do get sick too, from time to
time and their family. And those are the things that we do not have the
luxury of saying, OK, well I can at least say that my medical is taken care
of. It absolutely doesn`t happen. And in fact, they even perpetuate it
where they make sure you don`t make a certain amount of hours weekly so
that they don`t have to allot you benefits. This goes on all over. And
it`s something that once you`ve been there for some amount of years, you
realize, OK, I`m being used. I`m being used.
HARRIS-PERRY: So Dorian, Kassen`s story is a story we are seeing all over
the place. And I feel like when we start talking about strikes, the first
thing I hear is well, local franchise owners, not the big McDonald`s
chairman, but local franchise owner, they say if I pay dollars, now, I`m
going out of business and then Kassen has no job at all.
DORIAN WARREN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: That`s a fair point. And in fact, I
think you have to look -- we have to look at the bigger picture.
McDonald`s as a corporation made $5.5 billion in profits last year.
HARRIS-PERRY: Billions of millions.
WARREN: Billions. They can afford to pay their franchisees more money to
pass on to workers. So, it should not be an issue if it`s the workers
versus the franchisees. The franchisees need to be organized too, frankly,
to say to the parent corporation, no, no, this is not sustainable. We want
to treat our workers right, we want to do the right thing and you can
afford it. We can all afford it.
HARRIS-PERRY: And this feels to me like these worker strikes comes at a
time when we`re seeing the traditional labor unions being taken, sort of
taken down really, mostly by Republicans at the state level.
SCOTT ROSS, WISCONSIN ONE NOW: Well, I think what you see is this, is that
the six biggest fast food companies had $18 billion in domestic revenue
last year. The six CEOs of those companies made $50 million. The average
worker at a fast food restaurant would need to work 1300 years to make what
the CEO of the biggest one made just last year. And I think like what you
say, there is an attack going on. When raise up mke.org in Milwaukee,
there was an all out assault by the conservative noise machine led, of
course, by the Bradley foundation funded groups in Wisconsin, those being
the campaign co-chair of Scott Walker.
So, it is an all-out assault. And what we have to remember is, we have to
remember that the people who are working these jobs are not teenagers
making pocket change.
ROSS: The median age, 28-years-old. Two thirds of the workers in the fast
food industry, low wage workers are women and their median age is 32-years-
old. So, these are people trying to support their families. And it`s very
simple. They need to be paid for what they`re doing.
HARRIS-PERRY: Kassen, why did you make the decision to strike? I mean,
obviously, you said to me, OK, I feel I was being taken advantage of. But,
were you nervous that if went out on strike, you could lose your job?
SILVER: Well, a lot of the whole speculation has brought other fast food
workers, no, I need my job. It`s not what I want but I need it. And you
know, there has been intimidating factors that has been attempted. But at
the end of the day, it`s something that you h to do.
I know that in any company or organization that has a union, they had to
fight for it. They had to speak up for themselves. And we can take this
way back to Martin Luther King days when the janitors wanted to strike.
They had to speak up for themselves and say this is going on, this is not
right and we need to bring attention on it.
And at the end of the day, we just want to be productive citizens and we
know that, you know, this is not something that we just want for ourselves
so we can have in our pocket. This is to also replenish the community that
we say we`re servicing.
HARRIS-PERRY: And this is so important, right? What happens to our
economy if in fact low-wage workers make $15 an hour instead of seven?
Well, few things. One, we as taxpayers stop subsidizing the low-wage
business model because , as you pointed out, they play with the -- the
bosses play with hours so that workers aren`t eligible for health benefits.
So, what happens? Then public assistance, Medicaid is the primary way in
which workers are able to take care of themselves. We`re subsidizing as
taxpayers health care and other survival necessities.
HARRIS-PERRY: Basically, we are -- I mean, we are subsidizing McDonald`s,
right? It`s not even so much that we`re subsidizing Kassen`s family,
right? It`s not that. We are making it possible for that McDonald`s
chairman to make those millions and for McDonald`s to make billions
because, you know, taxpayers then have to take on the rest of it.
There is so much more. Thank you to Kassen Silver for joining us. Thank
you to Dorian and Scott who are going to stay with us in the next hour
because coming up next, the class of 2013. So much promise, so much debt.
What the future holds for millenials. It could be those jobs at
McDonald`s. So, I`m telling you, you`re going to want it to be $15 an
We are also going to take you live to More House college in Atlanta where
President Obama will give the commencement address moments from now.
There is more Nerdland at the top of the hour.
HARRIS-PERRY: Welcome back. I`m Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. And it`s
Sunday, May 19th. Graduation day for many.
I thought it only appropriate that I wear my academic regalia to celebrate
with them. We`re awaiting President Barack Obama`s commencement address to
the 2013 graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. We
will bring that to you live a little later in the show.
The president isn`t the only one giving graduation speeches this year.
First lady Michelle Obama has spent a couple of days giving rousing
commencement addresses. On Friday, there was this speech at historically
black college, Bowie State in Maryland.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it,
education means emancipation he said. He said it means light and liberty.
It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth,
the only light by which men can be free. You hear that? The only light by
which men can be freed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes, education is supposed to mean freedom and opportunity.
In fact, when her husband, President Barack Obama addresses the young men
of Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the most inspirational stories in
the audience will be that of Dorian Joyner Sr. and Dorian Joyner Jr.
They`re the father and son team who are graduating together from Morehouse
The other Joyner started in Morehouse journey 1984, but he didn`t finish.
Three years ago, he returned to Morehouse when his son was a freshman.
Their story is inspirational but the fact is, it takes more than that
inspiration to earn a college degree. And the dream of being a college
graduate is increasingly unavailable to those not born into wealth.
A new study by the Century Foundation`s Suzanne Mettler shows that while 71
percent of young people in the highest income families go on to earn a
four-year college degree, only 10 percent from America`s poorest families
ever walk across that stage to accept a bachelors.
And student loans are the only answer for many students dreaming of a
degree who can`t afford tuition. Today, there are 37 million Americans and
I`m one of them who are still paying on student loans. Mettler`s study
shows that indebtedness is especially bad for the students who turn to for-
profit colleges and universities.
So, while the tuition and fees at for-profit institution are no worse than
private non-profit institutions, almost 100 percent of the students
attending those profit institutions are borrowing money to attend. Average
student debt for those at for-profit institutions is more than $33,000 and
23 percent of the students who borrow money to attend these for-profit
institutions default on their loans.
So, happy graduation day, class of 2013! The struggle continues even for
What is a millennial to do?
At the table: Dorian Warren, associate professor at Columbia University and
fellow at the Roosevelt Institute; Andy Chan, vice president for personal
and career development at my undergraduate alma mater, Wake Forest
University; Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now; and Valarie
Kaur, senior fellow at Auburn Seminary.
So, nice to have you all here.
Let me start with you, Andy. How do we start thinking about how we talk to
young people about paying for college education when they are just in
terror of the kinds of stats I just gave about student loans?
ANDY CHAN, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY: You know, one of the things I think a
lot of students find with all in bad news is that they get very discouraged
thinking that there is really nothing out there. And one of the things
that they don`t realize is that there`s a lot more than just the jobs you
see on the Internet. In fact, at least half and maybe up to 75 percent of
the jobs that are available are in the sort of hidden market.
And so, because of that, if students can actually be taught how to network
and make connections, be introduced to people, to understand that actually,
you know, the number one thing I think employers really want is they want
to see that you`re prepared, that you`re resourceful, that you have
enthusiasm, and that you have a strong work ethic. And that you`re
bringing that to the table from the first moment you interview, things can
But what happens is students want to sit behind their computer, apply to
jobs on the internet and assume people will get back to them and say, you
have a job. It`s not that easy. And I think if we can encourage students
to make connections, good things will happen.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, you know, Dorian, part of what I realize as I listen to
Andy, I went to Wake Forest, small undergraduate institution where people
are going to talk to you. They`re going to counsel you, that you`re going
to get some advice about it. But when you look at the numbers around debt
and borrowing, the fact that it is happening basically at the Wal-Mart of
colleges, at these for-profit schools where 96 percent of their students
are taking out loans, then a quarter of them are defaulting -- and guess
who`s picking up the tab? So, again, we are underwriting, right, the for-
How do we make it clear to students consumers in the market just how
problematic it is to attend those sorts of schools with debt?
WARREN: I remember, bankruptcy laws, the only debt you can`t unload is
student loan. You can unload credit debt, mortgage debt -- all sorts of
debt, except for student loan debt. So, we are literally trapping in a
caste system in some ways today`s students.
So, how do we can -- I think -- I think what we need to convince graduates
is that they need to organize.
WARREN: They need to organize and join forces with Senator Warren and say,
something has to fundamentally change in terms of how our system of higher
education operates in this country. The increasing debt is unsustainable.
We`re putting a whole new generation of folks in lifetime debt before they
even get started.
I think the only way around that is to organize and say no, no, no,
something has to change, either lower interest rates. How about we forgive
that debt? That would help the economy, actually.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, Scot, is that a possibility? I sort of like the idea of
imagining the millenials in their own movement that deeply impacts them and
yet will also have enormous positive realities on the society.
ROSS: I`d say this: student loan debt is a clear and present danger to the
American economy. We did original research at One Wisconsin Now.
And what we found was that if you have a student loan debt, you are two-
thirds more likely to own a used car as opposed to a new car. You are two-
thirds more likely to be a renter than a homeowner. You are paying an
average in Wisconsin for four years of 18.7 years.
That`s all money that could be flooded into the economy to help these
people achieve their dreams and we have to do something systematic.
I think the most important thing we`ve got to tell people is it ain`t t
borrower`s faults. It`s not the borrower`s fault.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, this is so important, because buying the new car isn`t
about being fluffy and like, oh, don`t you want have a new car? I`m sorry.
I`m from the `70s. Right.
It`s not that. The idea is that if you buy the new car, you contribute to
the economy. If you are a homeowner, there`s all these -- all this
external money that goes into the system.
ROSS: Absolutely. It`s the entrance into the middle class.
ROSS: And what we have to remember is that this system which exists now is
because of fundamental changes that were made. The privatization, the
stripping away of every single consumer protection that`s afforded a
commercial transaction in the United States.
For instance, there`s no statute of limitations on student loans. Now, I
am not an attorney, I`m not an attorney. But there are four crimes to
which there are no statute of limitations -- murder, war crimes,
kidnapping, treason and now, student loan debt. What does that say about
us as a people?
Now, I will say this. Like you, I have student loan debt and next month,
I`m proud to announce that I will make the final payment on my student loan
HARRIS-PERRY: Oh, wow.
ROSS: At the age of 44.
ROSS: So, it represents an economic disaster, but look at the ravages of
paying off student loan debt at the age of 44.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, Valarie, I mean, here you are. You`re the millennial at
the table, at least at the moment. Like what does this do as you sort of
look out into your future?
VALARIE KAUR, FOUNDIGN DIRECTOR, GROUNDSWELL: I think the class of 2013
will make it if we embody the greatest parts of our generation. The
greatest qualities of our generation and we organize. So, I spend almost
every week on another college campus.
And what I`m hearing is that students are incredibly sober in the face of
this debt, in the face of the job market, in the face of Washington
gridlock. And yet somehow remain optimistic, somehow remain confident,
pragmatic. But we are ready to lean into our careers but we also care
about leaning toward a more equitable society for all people, that we are
frustrated with the status quo. We`re impatient with the status quo.
But more than any other generation in history, we have the tools to
actually channel that frustration into action, into organizing.
KAUR: It`s not the --
HARRIS-PERRY: More than any other generation in history, because I`m
thinking, what you don`t have is necessarily a model for labor organizing
in the way that, for example, my mother`s generation did or even I did. I
was walking around today feeling proud of myself for being born in the
`70s. So that when I finished college and when I finished graduate school,
I came into an economic boom, like smart for me to be born in the `70s.
But if you weren`t, actually you guys have fewer structural possibilities
KAUR: Yes. And we are finding ways to be entrepreneurial in spaces
outside of institutions of power. I think that`s what`s promising, that we
are the Twitter generation, we are net worth, that it`s not the "me, me,
me" generation. It`s the "us, us, us" generation. That even though we
came of age with the mantra of "yes, we can", we also came of age in the
shadow of a decade of post-9/11, that we understand the challenges that we
are up against.
And yet, we`re finding ways to challenge institutions of power. Just think
of what we`re doing at Auburn seminary. There`s Michelle and Jake and
Isaac and Dan, their millenials, they`re my age. And yet, you know, we
found ways to bring online organizing to the interfaith movement and then
at a year, Groundswell has more than 100,000 members.
We`ve seen that happened in pockets around the country. Now, if we can get
institutions to pay attention to reform the economy, to reform the criminal
justice system, to reform debt. Then, we can see --
HARRIS-PERRY: You`re such a millennial, all this optimism.
And as soon as we come after the break, if you`re going to pay off those
loans, class of 2013, you`re going to need jobs. I`m going to talk to Andy
about how you can get some.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think one of the best innings about finishing
college is suddenly having tons of options. But even though I`m excited to
graduate, the thing that scares me the most about finishing is making wrong
choices for me, not only professionally, but personally. And figuring out
where my actual passions lie.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: Again, the first Nerdland --
HARRIS-PERRY: You`re looking at a live shot of Morehouse College in
Atlanta, Georgia. In a few minutes, President Obama will be giving the
commencement speech there. And as soon as he begins to speak, we will
bring you there live.
So, the prevailing thought has always been if you complete college, you`ll
have a better chance of getting a job. And the numbers tell the tale.
College graduates have half the unemployment rate of high school grads.
And almost 73 percent of recent college graduates in October 2011 were
Yet in spite of those numbers, new study shows that nearly half of all
graduates from four-year colleges are in jobs that they feel don`t require
a four-year degree.
So, Andy, I`m interested because I know that you recently hosted a kind of
conference of colleges asking what do schools now need to be doing, what
kind of advice do you need to be giving to graduates that is different from
when I was in school or Dorian or maybe even Valarie, right?
So what is it that schools need to now be doing to prepare their graduates
for the workforce?
CHAN: Sure. So, we know that the world of work has been completely
transformed. There are fewer jobs available, that employer standards of
what they`re looking for is so much higher. That actually graduates
competing with people who are 10, even 20 years older than them for the
same exact jobs. So, with all that competition, the students need to be
both aware it`s happening but also be prepared for that.
The number one thing that I think that most schools have sort of not really
been keeping up with is the fact that their faculty need to actually get
connected to the employers. They actually have to know what`s going on
outside in the world. If the faculty --
HARRIS-PERRY: Which is tough. Like many of us -- this is my first real
job ever, right in the sense of like I went from college to grad school to
the academy. If a student would ask me, how do you get a job? I don`t
know. I never had one of those.
CHAN: That`s right. That`s right. So, what we`ve done at Wake Forest is
that our office, I really think of it as a bridge between the outside world
and the world of the academy.
And what we`ve done is been able to capture the data of what our students
have done as alums and then bring them back to campus to actually work with
the faculty so the faculty start to think, oh my gosh, my English major can
become a doctor, can become a business person, can become a teacher,
whatever it might be. It`s a wide variety of things.
But most of the students are thinking, if I major in anthropology, I will
never get a job. When, in fact, when you look at the alumni, they go on
and do many, many great things. But no one has any of the data.
So, we have to share the data first and, second, we have to actually bridge
the relationships. That`s the best part. Today with the Internet,
LinkedIn, ass an example, just gives you so many opportunities to create
those kinds of connections.
Half of our student body is on LinkedIn with profiles. We actually do that
so then they can connect with these alums out there who can help them. And
parents, too, there are parents in our database.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, here`s the one thing that worries me, Dorian, as a kind
of purist in the academy, though. And that in a certain way, I don`t want
the 18-year-old sitting in my class thinking about this, like I both do and
don`t. I want them to graduate and ha good jobs. But I also want them to
engage with me about ideas during those few years they have to just think
about ideas and not think about work.
How do we kind of bridge that gap between the work that is college
education and becoming the person that college allows you to be versus
finding a job on the back end?
WARREN: I think this is -- this is an endemic problem. I have not met a
student in the last few years that only has one major. They`re all double,
triple, quadruple majors, right?
HARRIS-PERRY: The thing I love and the thing that will make me money?
WARREN: Exactly, exactly. So, I`ll do -- I might do African-American
studies but I`m also going to do political science or economics because
that will get me a job.
HARRIS-PERRY: International finance and modern dance.
WARREN: So I think it is about fundamentally a vision of education and
what`s the role of college in the 21st century? Is it about developing
ourselves and capacity to be able to make a contribution in the world or is
it very careerist and professional and you`re just going to get specific
skills so that you can get a job? Not a career, a job, because there`s a
difference between those two things that I think millenials are finding out
Are you just going to get the skills for a job after you finish, or is it -
- is it something deeper? Are you going in debt, frankly, to be developed
as a full human being? That`s the -- that`s the question. I think there
are different views on that question.
HARRIS-PERRY: And, Scot, look, it seems to me that a big part of the issue
is not so much unemployment as it is underemployment. Now, when we look at
unemployment for recent graduates, it really is much higher for Latinos at
13.2 percent, African-Americans at 10.8 percent, white American students at
But these are still numbers that look pretty darn good compared to the
national numbers. I`m sorry, that`s recent graduate unemployment rate by
race -- I`m sorry -- from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But
the issue isn`t less about employment and more about underemployment,
getting a job but it being a job that doesn`t use your skills or doesn`t
use your capacities and doesn`t pay well.
ROSS: I think what it is, it shows that we need an all -- we need a real
solution to some of these things because we need to have jobs that pay
people so they can support their families. What we`re finding is this
cycle of debt, you know, is not just -- it`s not just starting with one
generation. It then moves on.
For instance, I think this statistic more than anything else ought to
terrify America. And that is that 120,000 people over the age of 60 had
their Social Security payments garnished because of student loan debt. You
And so, we think about how are we going to make our economy work long-term.
It`s all of these things. It`s good jobs, it`s good education.
We have to ask ourselves three questions. One, is public education still a
public good that`s going to be supported by the public? Second, what do we
do about the existing trillion dollars of debt and what do we do to keep it
from being $2 trillion by the end of this decade? And, third, what are the
long-term effects on our economy if we don`t do something?
Valarie, I`m going to let you weigh in here. When you`re talking to other
young people who are finishing up, whether law school or grad school or
undergrad, what are the things they`re telling you that they`re most
KAUR: They`re most worried about being able to pursue their passion in
such an unstable world. They`re worried about being such champions of
President Obama and seeing how their hope and institutions of power to
effect change from the inside is actually much harder. It takes much more
work than they could possibly have imagined.
They are understanding that courage is not shear strength, that courage is
vulnerability, and that we have to learn how to be courageous enough to
take risk in a very vulnerable world. But we have -- but we`re not alone.
And that we can -- we can look to the past to resistances in the past, to
draw inspiration to continue to write a new future.
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. And our institutions can help us to be not alone.
KAUR: That`s right.
HARRIS-PERRY: Thank you to Scot Ross and to Valerie Kaur.
Dorian and Andy are staying for more.
President Obama is expected to speak live momentarily at Morehouse College
in Atlanta, Georgia. We`re going to go there live when he does.
After the break, we`re going to bring in some class of 2013 folks. That`s
a lot of student debt coming to my table, after the break.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELIZA ARNOLD, CLASS OF 2013: My biggest fear about graduating is getting
sucked into the grind and never really loving or appreciating what I do on
a day-to-day basis.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: You`re looking at a live shot of Morehouse College in
Atlanta, Georgia. And just in a few moments, President Obama will deliver
the commencement speech there. We`ll bring it to you live.
Joining me now on set is a combined total of $136,000 in real and projected
student debt. And they have real names.
Brittany Brathwaite just graduated from Syracuse University with $10,000 in
debt. She`s going on to get her masters degree in social work and public
health. That will put her post secondary debt at about $100,000.
And Victoria Bachan who graduates this Friday -- congratulations -- from
Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in communications. Her grand
total of college debt will be about $36,000.
So, ladies, how you feeling?
VICTORIA BACHAN, MARYMOUNT MANHATTAN COLLEGE GRADUATING STUDENT: Excited.
HARRIS-PERRY: Right. That makes you a millennial, right? You`re not even
nervous about the $30,000. No big deal.
BACHAN: Oh, I`m nervous. The big idea is the unknown. Who knows what`s
happening to me? I have this debt and no full-time job post the summer.
Who knows how that`s being paid?
HARRIS-PERRY: When you made that decision and where you are now, would you
make your decisions any differently in terms of making sort of taking out
the debt or do you feel like, nope, this was still fundamentally worth it?
BACHAN: It was absolutely worth it. I decided to come to a private school
out of state. I`m originally from Charleston, South Carolina. I wanted to
go where there was a lot of professional development opportunities for me,
outside of school, within school, with internship, that sort of thing, a
lot of networking.
And I did every possible thing you could do to cut costs. I graduated
school, I`ll be graduating a year early. I`m supposed to be a junior and
I`m a senior.
HARRIS-PERRY: And you did that in part to keep the debt down?
BACHAN: I did a semester of classes while in high school. And then the
other semester, I made up through three summers in January courses which
you`re able to pay those out of pocket rather than an entire semester of
school of tuition.
So I did that. I moved out of the dorms. I pay rent every month so that`s
not -- I don`t have to pay for my living expenses on top of that debt 10
So, now, you`re making a decision. You`re coming off relatively little
undergraduate debt but you`re making a decision to go to grad school in a
field that I presume that you are deeply interested in and love and to take
on more debt. Why that decision?
BRITTANY BRATHWAITE, COMMUNITY ORGANIZING INTERN: I feel like I need the
tools. So like I go and I do this day and I see all the jobs, they say a
masters in social work or masters in public health and three to five years
of experience with the masters. So I feel like I don`t even have a choice.
I graduated with a bachelors in women and gender studies. And while I did
a lot of work during that, I think that`s really important that I didn`t
just go to college. I had to actually work while in college. Start an
organization and do community organizing while in school.
But then when I graduated, it`s like, OK, so what do I do with that when
all the jobs are asking for masters. I want to be really good at my field
and, really, you know, competent in that. But taking out $90,000 for that
is what made me nauseous when I applied. So, there`s all this happiness
yes I got into graduate school, yes I got into Columbia.
BRATHWAITE: Yes, I got $90,000 of debt coming.
HARRIS-PERRY: I mean, you`re -- I want to be clear for folks. You were
doing without parental support.
HARRIS-PERRY: You`re not in a family circumstance where you have parents
who could be writing these checks for you.
BRATHWAITE: Yes. So I was undergrad, I was lucky to be a part of a
program for a students t are disenfranchised or do not have the financial
support that supported me through my years in college. So, I didn`t have
but a lot of the loans I had to take were for living expenses. You have to
pay to stay at college, pay to eat. And so, I had to take those. When
coming to graduate school the same thing happens.
And everyone is an independent student. But for me, it`s like I still
don`t have that support. So I`m taking out loans for just medicine and
things like that.
HARRIS-PERRY: So, Andy, you looking at two young women going out into this
job market. This is the kind of students that you work with all the time.
Is there key advice that you would give them as they`re thinking forward
about the next steps for them?
CHAN: Sure. First thing I want to say how impressed how thoughtful you
are about this whole process. You`re clearly on top of it. You`re clearly
thinking strategically about what to do, really thoughtful about making
these choices. I think that`s one of those things that first students do
need to do.
Second, is that we talked a little bit about this notion that how do you
actually stay connected to people and one of the things I like to talk
about is this idea that every student has a set of who are their adult
fans, people who think that they rock, people written their
recommendations, who coached them, who loved them, who loved their family.
And I`d say go back and spend time with those people and don`t be afraid to
ask for advice, to ask for ideas, to ask for introductions and as a result,
and especially ask for feedback. We`ve talked about that a little bit with
the students. Like make sure that you`re actually asking them honestly,
tell me what I can do. What more can I learn? How can I make sure that
when I go to an interview, I`m really ready?
Again a lot of times, students think, if I do enough interviews, I`ll be
good. If you`re not so good in the beginning and you keep doing bad
interviews, you`re not going to get better. And they need that kind of
feedback. I think that`s the first start which is a big piece to me.
I use the 80/20 rule: 80 percent be with people, talk to people, 20 percent
be on the Internet doing research. Not the other way around.
HARRIS-PERRY: I like the language of adult fans. We definitely have a
group of young people who Nerdland is big fans of and seeing where you all
are in your educational process.
I think the other question I want to ask you and follow with Dorian is, do
you all ever think about Medicare and Medicaid? And the reason I`m asking
you is because you`re thinking student loans now. I`m wondering as you
make voting decisions or are you just sort of thinking about your own life
planning, I know it feels really far off, but they`re talking about 2030,
2033 when this may not be available to you.
Is this part of your life planning?
BACHAN: We were just talking about this earlier, how -- the idea that
we`re starting our adult lives with all of these mountains of debt. We
want to own homes and have kids and provide for them.
But what if we can`t? She`s getting more education. And that just adds
and adds and adds. What if we don`t have the same thing that our parents
have and our grandparents have, and those kind of securities? What if
medicine is much harder to access, health, preventative care?
BACHAN: These are huge fears, especially if you have a preexisting
HARRIS-PERRY: So, Dorian, I heard you say in part you take loans to pay
for medicine. And I`m thinking --
BRATHWAITE: I have -- so I have a chronic illness. That was one thing in
college. There`s all these assumptions about, you know, you pay for
parties, you pay for all these things. But I had to pay for medicine in
And so, when we talk about health care, that hits home for me. I`m really
interested in health policy, mostly for myself, being able to pay that co-
pay. I have to go the emergency room. That`s $50 for me.
And so, even thinking about that, like it`s not just education. I want to
change the world, but I have to like help myself and be able to live.
HARRIS-PERRY: You got to stay in the world to be able to help it.
As so as we come back -- actually, President Obama is getting set for his
remarks at the Morehouse commencement this morning. We`re going to bring
you that live after the break.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TYLER JACK, CLASS OF 2013: My biggest fear about graduating is now I have
to start cutting. Cutting out the people I know, the places I`ve been and
the things I do. But most of all, I have to cut my hair. Out of this
fear, though, is born a new freedom, a freedom to choose. I get decide
where I go and what I do and that`s what makes it so exciting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRIS-PERRY: We`ll continue to await President Obama`s commencement
address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. We`ll bring that to you
live as soon as it happens.
But we`ve been discussing the class of 2013. And Joel Stein (ph) stirred
up controversy with his article, "the me, me, me generation" in the May
20th edition of "Time", magazine in which he profiles members of that class
and all millenials as narcissistic, entitled and lazy.
But Stein also says that one quality, their unwavering optimism, some of
which has been on display in Nerdland may be the key to building a better
future. Despite our current economic situation and challenging job market,
80 percent of millenials say they are confident they will get what they
want out of life.
So, Dorian, let me ask you about this, because I think part of the reason
that optimism exists is because we think there`s a social safety net in
place that really may not be there for them on the other end.
So, Social Security and Medicare, which is the great promises of the
American system to our citizens eroding by the time these young people are
old enough to take advantage of it.
WARREN: Well, I think interesting about that cover story in time, the me,
me, me generation is we`re all in a state of me right now. So, older
folks, the baby boomers are thinking about me in terms of retirement,
Social Security, health care, Medicare, all of those things. They`re
thinking -- that generation has then transmitted a narcissism to their
children, and their children`s children. So, we`re all in in me state.
Whereas, millenials are just trying to think about how are they going to
get a job, how are they going to pay off their student loans, not thinking
about, you know, will I have retirement, will there be Social Security?
So, we`re all stuck in this me state thinking about the near future not
focus really on the long-term.
HARRIS-PERRY: You know, that`s interesting, because there`s a way in which
if we look at public policy, it tracks the baby boomers, right? Sort of
because they have been so big and so dominating, whatever they want is what
our economy generates and creates now for decades. Maybe they`re the "me,
me, me generation" and this is the "now, now, now generation" not so much
out of narcissism, but out of necessity.
WARREN: Out of necessity for survival, what`s going to be there? But, of
course, we`ve learned it from our parents and our parents` parents.
But you also have to look at the fact that our parents -- the baby boomers
are incredibly stressed.
WARREN: Incredibly stressed.
WARREN: Not being able to work full-time, hitting career ceilings.
WARREN: Not knowing -- a lot of people lost their retirement in the crash
or the great recession. There`s a stress level as well among the baby
boomers that`s been, I feel like been transmitted to younger folks.
HARRIS-PERRY: Andy, in terms of institutions, that also matters. Because
the baby boomers, that age cohort also ought to be the ones who in part are
subsidizing college education, right?
So, part of what`s happened is the reduction in endowments for private
universities that occurred as a result of the stock market crash. But also
state universities who have substantially had to reduce their or
substantially increase their tuition because state governments are not
giving them what they once gave even though it`s much cheaper for a family
to pay a marginally higher tax rate and support college than to pay more in
college tuition, right?
I`m just wondering, as a representative of the institution, how you find
yourself as your own kind of sandwich generation, baby boomers not having
the resources to give to support institutions but institutions needing more
to support the millenials.
CHAN: I think that the whole idea of the big gap between the divide
between the rich and the poor is really being sort of seeing higher
education, too. You take the elite private institutions, the families who
have the money to give the kind of endowment we`re talking about is still
And so, there are some of those at that level I would call very much elite.
I mean, it`s just in a way where they are going to be able to survive the
next storm coming for higher education. I think the state institutions and
many, many small colleges who don`t have that kind of families and alumni
to support it, there`s going to be change. I think it`s going to be
HARRIS-PERRY: How did you decide where to go to school? Was it in part
about financial aid, about what it costs, or did you ultimately feel like I
can make this decision and I`ll just figure out a way to pay for it?
BRATHWAITE: I definitely chose on cost. I got acceptance letters and then
I waited for financial aid packages. It was very important.
I -- as far as -- that is how I chose. I chose where I got the most
scholarship, least amount of loans and then even tried to apply to other
things to reduce my loan debt. I did think about the future and whether or
not I`d be able to pay that back. And just thinking about loans in itself,
loans were a curse word in college for many of us. It`s like, you got
HARRIS-PERRY: Oh, I`m sorry you got those loans. Right.
BRATHWAITE: Financial aid is frequented too. Like, you know, you go to
your financial aid person because you need to talk about this. You don`t
need $10,000 in loans for one semester. So, I did think about that.
HARRIS-PERRY: How about you?
BACHAN: Unfortunately for me, financial aid was not given to me as much.
It`s very tough. I`m an only child of two suburban parents.
It looks like they can pay that no matter what. That`s really not the
case. And so for me, it was kind of like where did I get in, where did I
think was really going to cultivate me, not only personally but
professionally, academically to move forward in my life and moving forward.
HARRIS-PERRY: You know, this point that you make is in part about that
divide, right? So that now disappearing middle is burdened in ways that
are even more extreme because if you`re not part of an endowment capacity
family but you`re also not in a circumstance where you become eligible for
other kinds of aid, you find yourself in the middle. And yet, you guys
somehow still manage to be wildly optimistic.
More of which we are going to talk about when we come back as we await
President Obama`s address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. We`re
talking more about what`s at stake for the class of 2013 and their unseemly
HARRIS-PERRY: We`re still awaiting President Obama`s address to the
graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most
prestigious historically black colleges in the country. We`re going to
take you live to Atlanta as soon as the president begins his address.
Now, we`ve been discussing the class of 2013 and in particular millenials.
Millenials have grown up in a post-9/11 world with two ongoing wars and a
bad economy. But also with the first African-American president, with the
increasing legalization of same-sex marriage in many states and also an
increasingly racially diverse nation.
As a result, their cognitive framework for understanding the world is
different than generations before them, which leads me to ask this
question: is it possible that this will allow them to succeed in ways past
generations haven`t, in building a more inclusive and diverse democracy.
So, ladies, I want to ask you about this. There seems to be mixed evidence
for the millenials.
Same-sex marriage on the one hand, 70 percent of millenials support
marriage equality, right? Sort of -- this is true across ideology. It`s
across, you know, Democrat, Republican. Then when we ask questions about
race and gender at Georgetown University, ask whether or not gender would
make any kind of difference on career, 63 percent said, no, I don`t think
it`s going to make any difference and both white and millennials of color
saying we think our race will help us. Only 18 percent saying it will
Apparently, you guys are in a world where you`re imagining hey, I`m not
worried about race, I`m not worried about marriage. It`s all good.
WARREN: That`s stunning.
HARRIS-PERRY: I know. Isn`t that stunning?
WARREN: I`m stunned because one of the biggest problems in the American
workforce is occupational segregation by race and gender. How to deal --
we don`t have the legal tools that are adequate to the task at hand.
WARREN: So, the union that race -- I mean, it`s great. Maybe it`s
delusional for millenials to think it`s not going to matter. But that`s
HARRIS-PERRY: I know, I got to tell you, when I was reading these reports
over the past day or so as we were prepping for this, I kept sort of open-
mouthed awe at this. So, it does feel delusional and wonderful. Like
perhaps the most wonderful delusion I`ve ever seen.
When you all are thinking what it means to be in your generation, where do
you put issues of race and gender and sexual orientation in class.
BACHAN: I mean, I think it`s still an issue. The statistics are great and
so wonderful to think that`s how it`s going to go, but there is still an
issue and I know for me, I work in a very -- in an industry that there`s
not a lot of women.
So, the gender role is still important. I have to prove myself harder. I
have to work harder and I have to make more connections that I can do the
job as the male-dominated force. And that`s why I want to keep doing what
I`m doing to open that door for the future so that those statistics can be
real, and that no one thinks it`s delusional like this is a real thing. So
BRATHWAITE: I guess I would say I was surprised. That does surprise me.
Maybe it`s because I studied race, gender and sexuality, and I navigate
this world with those types of identities. So I am -- I am thinking about
race and I am thinking about gender, even when I was in school. Being in a
predominantly white institution, I can`t tell you there wasn`t a day I
didn`t think about being black or being a woman, or anything like that.
So, I do think about those, especially when entering into a job or anything
like that. What the dynamics are going to look like, what is my position?
How am I going to show up, right? How am I going to be present in this
So, I`m always thinking about that. It is true that we`re very optimistic.
We want to believe we`re moving.
Policies are showing that slowly. So, I`m sort of happy. But I`m always
thinking. I can`t say that I`m never conscious about that.
HARRIS-PERRY: I mean, Dorian, it goes back to the organizing principle,
right? If I think that race and gender make no difference, then I may not
be concerned about paycheck fairness act. I wanted to show you an
affirmative action when we look at white millenials and what they think
about discrimination, apparently 58 percent of white millenials agree that
discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination
against black and other minorities for Hispanic and black millenials
generally strongly reject the statement.
But that idea that this is not an issue and then we look at affirmative
action, only 3 percent of white millenials believing that we should have
affirmative action to make up for past discrimination. And interestingly,
only 15 percent of black millenials we should have affirmative action to
make up for past discrimination. That`s a real policy issue.
WARREN: That`s a policy issue. You know what`s interesting about it is on
the one hand, I talk to friends about this all the time.
I think my students -- I think millenials are very, very entitled these
days. And I think in some ways that`s good, right? We should feel a sense
of entitlement that discrimination should not exist in the workplace.
And on the other hand --
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes, and that you deserve fair wages and Social Security.
WARREN: I like that kind of entitlement. That`s the kind of entitlement
that we should all encourage.
On the other hand, it precludes the work that still has to be done to end
all sorts of workplace discrimination, which requires organizing, which
requires voting. Which requires politics, right? It requires work to say,
no, no, no, there`s a glass ceiling here by gender or by race and we`re
going to bust through it. And that requires collective action of some
So the entitlement on the one hand is a good thing. But it also worries me
in the sense that we might not be equipping students with the tools they
might need to go out into the workforce and when you come up against some
of those barriers, we haven`t equipped you with how to breakthrough them.
HARRIS-PERRY: It feels like not only do we want the kind of career
training, we also want, I know Wake is part of this, the kind of person
training. So, wherever you stand, whether Democrat, Republican or any of
those things, that you recognize Republican or those things that you
recognize, it`s both you and your individual and also the ways in which y
are a person engaged.
Don`t go anywhere yet. We`re still waiting for the president`s speech.
But after the break, just in case the president isn`t ready yet, I`m going
to have a commencement address from Nerdland.
HARRIS-PERRY: For today`s footnote, my advice to the class of 2013: be
ignorant. We have taught you to think of education as a code you can
crack, taught to you value grades and scores more than learning. As you
graduate, remember that all learning begins with ignorance. Be willing to
embrace wonder, to experience unexpected discovery and to go in unknown
directions, a posture of ignorance compels you to keep learning.
Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you start signing up for
life`s hard classes. Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity
ferocious. Keep groping in the darkness with ravenous desire to know more.
Be passionate. As educated Americans, you have choices that most do not
have, even with the vast inequalities and continuing economic crisis in our
country, your diploma or degree places you amongst the most privileged
country. Most people are forced to work jobs that pay the bills and starve
their spirits. You may be able to escape this fate, but only if you`re
brave enough to follow your passions even when the economic rewards are not
completely clear. Never trade your soul for a paycheck.
Be of service. You are taking your degree into a society dominated by
concentrated poverty and a vulnerable middle class, where it`s harder to
get education, harder to find a job, harder to buy a house, harder to hold
on to those things, even if you manage get them. You are entering
adulthood during a period of mass incarceration and near constant war.
There is a lot for you to do. Service is the rent you pay for the space
you take up on the Earth. As a relatively privileged American, you take up
a lot of space. We`re the most consuming, polluting, wasteful nation on
earth. So your rent is steep, pay it with service.
And finally, make mistakes. We`ve asked you to excel in every endeavor and
to avoid anything that might diminish your record of excellence. We`ve
rewarded you for following the rules but not for making your own.
But you must not be afraid to make mistakes. If you`re unwilling to make
mistakes, you cannot find your way to your passion. You can`t manage to be
of service. Mistakes are the tool of all invention. They litter the path
Throw your perfect self head long into the crazy, scary, painful, humbling
world, please? Because class of 2013, we`re counting on you. We`re
sending you out to an imperfect world with imperfect skills. But what you
do will define more than your generation. It will define our nation and
That`s our show for today. Thank you to, Dorian, Andy, Victoria, and
Brittany and for sticking around. Thanks to you at home for watching.
I`m going to see you next Saturday at 10:00.
Coming up, "WEEKENDS WITH ALEX WITT".
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