This week’s “Free For All” letters

Where the gap is greatest

Achievement gaps between groups in the United States remain a major educational problem. Unfortunately, the April 20 Metro article “Report shows disparity in success,” about the achievement gaps in Montgomery County Public Schools, obfuscated this important issue by focusing on ethnic group differences in achievement and not simultaneously considering the role of socioeconomic status. Such research shows that (on average) students from poorer backgrounds do less well in school than wealthier students.  A higher percentage of Latino and African American children are poor compared with their white counterparts. The article focused on Latino, African American and “disadvantaged” students as discrete groups, rather than presenting the complex interplay of ethnicity and economics.

Comparisons across ethnic groups should be made only when socioeconomic status also is considered or controlled statistically. Not doing so results in erroneous conclusions about the causes of performance differences, which can reinforce stereotypes that certain ethnic groups just don’t do well in school. Such stereotypes are harmful to members of the stereotyped group themselves, as psychologist Claude Steele’s research on “stereotype threat” clearly indicates.

Allan Wigfield, Silver Spring

The fraught history of 'Patient Zero'

The April 16 front-page article “Unaware he had measles, man infected 39 in Mich.” repeatedly referred to its subject as “Patient Zero” — an imprecise, historically fraught term.

“Patient Zero” entered the American and epidemiological lexicon in 1987 when Randy Shilts falsely claimed in “And the Band Played On” that Gaetan Dugas introduced AIDS to the United States as “Patient Zero” and knowingly spread the disease to other people. Shilts’s narrative resulted from questionable evidence, his mischaracterization of scientific literature and his editor’s decision to actively demonize Dugas.

Following “Band’s” publication, stories about “Patient Zero” exploded: National Review deemed Dugas “the Columbus of AIDS ”; the New York Post ran a front-page article called “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS”; and “60 Minutes” ran a segment on “Patient Zero.” Soon, Shilts’s claim fueled policymakers’ efforts to criminalize the transmission of HIV and reduce the amount of government funds appropriated for combating AIDS.

Usage of the term played into the larger narrative that minorities infect the general population — seen in the U.S. history of tuberculosis and syphilis — and therein contributed to fear of people with AIDS, particularly gay men.

Ultimately, I do not expect “Patient Zero” to exit the American lexicon; however, I hope this can be an opportunity for readers to learn about the term’s history and to think critically about its place in outbreak reporting.

Andrew Pregnall, Annandale


A sturgeon at a fish farm in Russia. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)
Oh, baby, what a beluga

I was surprised to read the April 23 Economy & Business article “With cheaper caviar, a loss of cachet,” about China’s caviar market and the United States’ cultivating of black sturgeon. The article stated, “In the wild, beluga take more than 20 years to reach sexual maturity and may live 100 years and weigh two tons (a roe sack is about 10 percent of the fish’s weight).” That’s one big fish.

Wikipedia suggests that the largest beluga, a type of sturgeon, ever caught weighed about 3,500 pounds, but most are typically no more than 500 pounds. Perhaps the Health & Science article the same day about great white sharks and orcas [“It turns out that great white sharks are afraid of another ocean predator: Orca whales,” Science News] may need to be updated, as well — a 4,000-pound sturgeon is also big enough to snack on a great white’s liver.  

Kevin Campbell, Springfield

Only half 'the whole people'

Ronald C. White’s otherwise enjoyable and educational April 24 Wednesday Opinion essay, “The growing appreciation of U.S. Grant,” included one glaring inaccuracy that went uncorrected. White noted that after Grant’s reelection in 1872, a delegation of African American leaders came to the White House to thank him, stating that he was “the first president of the United States elected by the whole people.” Not so. Although black men were granted the right to vote in 1870, no women, white or black, were allowed to vote for a U.S. president until 50 years later, in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Christine M. Hanson, Columbia

A historic issue

Throughout the nearly two-year Mueller investigation, The Post has been at the forefront of breaking news on this story. The April 19 edition with coverage of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, which had been released only the previous day, was stellar in its depth and breadth. The big-picture stories were there, including an excellent analysis by Dan Balz on the damning portrait of the Trump presidency [“Frame it however you like, but it’s a damning portrait of Trump’s presidency,” front page]. Yet the bite-size stories in the special section also gave valuable information in an easily digested format.

I should not have been surprised that The Post would be ready when the report was released, but the quality and quantity of the coverage were impressive. I am keeping the front page and the special section as markers of a historic day. The only other newspaper I have kept is The Post’s 2008 issue on Barack Obama’s election as president.

Nancy Hicks, Washington

Missing out

The photographs included with the April 20 news articles “In record Democratic field, shared struggles to break out” and “How presidential contenders for 2020 are spending their campaign cash” were all of young, white males: Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke (D) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) — despite the fact that there are a record number of women and people of color running. This kind of biased selection of photos perpetuates the notion that U.S. presidents and viable presidential candidates are all white men. Shameful, especially in this election.

Linda Thornburg, Charlottesville

A compelling, silent beauty

In her April 19 Metro column, “ ‘Hero among heroes’ deserves his due,” an otherwise commendable and noteworthy essay on Sgt. William A. Butler, Petula Dvorak gave a shabby description of the District’s elegant and graceful World War I memorial as “a dinky little gazebo.” Sacré bleu — clearly she has never paid a visit.

War memorials in Western countries have evolved over the centuries. Before the Great War, many such memorials commemorated the heroics of individual generals. The Great War, with its mustard gas and poisonous trenches, had a horrific impact on the populations of Britain, France, Belgium and Italy. Entire towns and villages lost a generation of young men. Canada, New Zealand and Australia also lost a significant number of their young men to this catastrophic and tragic conflict. You cannot visit even the tiniest village in France or Britain without finding a memorial, often including the name of each fallen soldier from the Great War, somewhere in the center of the town. The District’s beautiful and elegant Doric temple in West Potomac Park is dedicated not to all of America’s lost sons and daughters from that conflict but only to those 499 fatalities from our village on the Potomac. That is as it should be.

The D.C. memorial had fallen into sad disrepair, but, with funds from the Obama administration, it was restored in 2010. It now looks beautiful again, so much so that it has become a popular backdrop for bridal photos because of its compelling, silent beauty, in stark contrast to the incoherent architectural mass of the World War II Memorial close by.

When Republicans in Congress wanted to expropriate our D.C. memorial and make it a “national” memorial, wiser heads prevailed, and so a National World War I Memorial in the District will be created near Pershing Park, and our graceful temple to our fallen will remain as it was intended.

Ellen Goldstein, Washington

The writer is a member of the board of the National Mall Coalition.

Girls can do the asking

Regarding the April 14 “Zits” comic strip: 

Why in 2019 is Sara still waiting for Jeremy to ask her to prom? How about instead of spending all her time and effort to get Jeremy to ask her, she asks him? Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman have moved on to the 21st century when it comes to technology but sadly still have their teenage characters living in the 1950s socially.

Tamara Rosenberg, Arlington

Missing context

As a medical oncologist, I found critical information lacking from Renee Ridgeley’s April 18 Thursday Opinion column, “How I won the breast cancer lottery — twice.” There was no explanation as to why she underwent such radical surgery — bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction — for an early stage breast cancer. The only medical indication for such an approach is the presence of an oncogene mutation such as BRCA, which conveys a high risk of recurrent or bilateral breast cancer. Absent such a mutation, lumpectomy, plus radiation therapy, leads to survival rates at least as good as mastectomy. The need for chemotherapy is not contingent on the extent of surgery but rather on tumor characteristics, including size, lymph node involvement, estrogen receptors and “aggressiveness” as determined by genomic testing. If she had a demonstrated BRCA or similar mutation, it should have been stated. To imply that Ridgeley’s treatment would be appropriate for women lacking an oncogene mutation is doing them a profound disservice.

Timothy K. Bowers, Martinsburg, W.Va.


Relatives weep near the coffin of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was killed in the Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)
Worth thousands of words, at least

Given the heartbreaking subject, it hardly seems appropriate to congratulate photographer Gemunu Amarasinghem, but the April 23 front-page photo accompanying the article “Obscure Sri Lanka group eyed in blasts” was a work of art on its own merits.

The balance of the composition — the heavy wooden coffin on the right balanced by the light, airy lace curtain on the window on the left, the tearful mourners in the foreground countered by the woman glancing blankly into the distance — my goodness, truly this picture is worth a thousand words.

Carol Cooke, Alexandria

The April 21 Washington Post Magazine package “Twenty-Four magazine covers about climate change” was brilliant. The covers proved the wisdom of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. By linking the visual to the text, we literally see the main point of a story, remember it and feel its impact. Art challenges our intellect while reaching into our emotions. If we’re ever to solve climate change, we must feel that it must be solved.

Cheryl Arney, Ellicott City

The writer is a volunteer with
Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Missing key details

While I have no problem with Michael McFaul’s April 21 Sunday Opinion essay, “What Mueller didn’t tell us about Russia,” and think that McFaul’s proposals for dealing with Russian interference in past and future U.S. elections are reasonable, The Post should have identified McFaul as a former ambassador to Russia (2012 to 2014) who was harassed by the Russians during and after his ambassadorship.

Ted Hochstadt, Falls Church

In his April 20 op-ed, “Congress, do your duty,” John Yoo was identified as “a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, [who] served as general counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 1996 and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.” The most significant part of Yoo’s career was his authorship of the “torture” memos, while deputy assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and his advocacy on that subject. How could The Post omit such a central fact? What does that say about the lack of accountability for that disgraceful episode in the nation’s history?

Mark Sommerfield, Annandale


Missing America

Never in more than 75 years of reading comic strips have I been so moved as when I encountered the April 24 “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip. In four frames and fewer than 20 words, Stephan Pastis captured exactly what is amiss in our nation. The fact that Rat is watching television while he shrugs off Pig’s lament is telling. We could all benefit from fewer hours mindlessly devoted to media and more time intentionally practicing civility.

Doralee Simko, Woodstock

Leave Buttigieg out of it

If Glenn Kessler’s April 21 The Fact Checker column about Vice President Pence, “Pence’s attitude toward gay people and the debate over ‘conversion therapy,’ ” was about whether Pence supports conversion therapy, why did Kessler drag South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) into it? Kessler opened with two quotes from Buttigieg that did not relate to conversion therapy. Only a few paragraphs later, Kessler acknowledged that Buttigieg said he doesn’t know whether Pence supports conversion therapy.

Even more disturbing was Kessler’s tortured discussion of Indiana’s religious-freedom legislation. There is absolutely no reason for a fact-checker to take the word of those promoting anti-gay and anti-lesbian legislation when they say it does not discriminate against gay, lesbian, queer and transgender people. Everyone in the gay and lesbian community understands how religious-freedom laws establish legal protection for discrimination against gay, lesbian, queer and transgender people. In my mind, there is no question that Pence is homophobic.

Frank Caesar Branchini, Edgewater

The April 19 Style articleAnd in other news . . . there is no other news as far as this town is concerned” used the f-bomb in the section containing the comics, puzzles and entertainment stories. That specific, non-family-friendly word should not appear on the front page and above the fold of any section of the paper. I am okay with such language in designated sections, such as The Post’s special section devoted to the Mueller report, or inside a section of the paper, even Style. I am not a fan of such strong language, but I fully respect other people’s right to use it. Having such language so easily visible to younger readers — and on the first page of the section with the comics — was unnecessary, however.

C. Megan Larko, Laurel