It is commonly stated that Black Americans’ memory of the infamous and awful Tuskegee Experiment has induced a high rate of vaccine hesitancy. The hesitancy is there. One poll indicates that the average hesitancy rate for Americans is about 27%, but 26% among Whites and 35% among blacks. This has led observers who know about the Tuskegee experiments (read about them if you don’t know) to make the intuitive link, suggesting that Black Americans, in the light of Tuskegee and similar historical events, believe they are potentially in danger from the vaccine because those things happened then. This has even led some community leaders of color to amplify this idea.
However, this is likely wrong. Yes, sure, there are people making that link and thus making that particular decision. But a recent study (that I’ve not read but have on good authority) shows that people who have not heard about Tuskegee are more likely to distrust the medical establishment generally, and this distrust leads to vaccine hesitancy. I’m glad to hear this, because I was getting really annoyed about the Tuskegee link. People are not that stupid, to take a historical slight, single it out, and harm themselves and their family over it. The ease with with uncritical uncritical journalism has gone there is yet another example of systemic racism. Being distrustful of the medical establishment comes from inherent and demonstrable bias in that system, which does harm to people of color every day. And people see that, and know it.
I learned about this more informed perspective listening to Harriet A. Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, who said “We’re dealing with an untrustworthy healthcare system. And we’re dealing with people’s reaction to that healthcare system, which is, unfortunately, a logical reaction” in “A Shot In The Dark,” an episode of the Codeswitch podcast.
You can too:
Oh, and finally: Get vaccinated everybody!