As talk these days seems consumed with the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine —have you gotten your shot? how did you do it? —it’s become increasingly apparent that one group of Americans doesn’t trust the inoculations.
I’m speaking about African-Americans, including those working in hospitals and nursing homes who refuse to be vaccinated. A prevalent and nagging thought, understandably so, is the Tuskegee Experiment that misled and deceived black participants into thinking they would receive free medical care for syphilis. They didn’t. The study lasted 40 years, instead of the six months related to the participants.
Over time, I’ve learned that blacks distrust the white medical world. While this feeling may have diminished, it has not disappeared. Some feel mistreated, if not disrespected.
Racism is deep-seated. Its ugly results are ingrained into the black psyche. It’s as if the black community is infected with an untreatable and chronic virus of distrust and fear.
As I read recently, African-Americans represent a third of the Covid-19 deaths nationwide. That is a fact that is startling and upsetting. It symbolizes a sordid aspect of American life.
According to a Nov. 20, 2020 article in the Washington Post, citing a surge of Covid cases throughout the country, “…losses among racial and ethnic minorities remain disproportionately large. Black Americans were 37 percent more likely to die than Whites after controlling for age, sex and mortality rates over time.” The Post analyzed 5.8 million records of people who tested positive for coronavirus.
Last week, a friend, a black woman raised on the Eastern Shore, called me wondering what groups, and what people could persuade blacks, including health care workers, to push aside their apprehension and roll up their sleeves for a life-saving vaccination. What first came to mind were black religious leaders willing to exhort their parishioners to battle a crippling, sometime fatal disease.
I felt so helpless when my friend sought my advice. Racism as manifested in a malevolent U.S. Health Service study is not easily erased from the memories of blacks who for hundreds of years in our country have suffered other, insidious forms of hatred and mistreatment.
As so often happens in our complex country, cures and remedies for medical and societal problems and mysteries face human obstacles created by past transgressions. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are incapable of finding a solution to the detrimental effect of bigotry.
If not genetic, bias often seems an unflinching part of the human condition. It has no beneficial side effects.
Were I given the opportunity to ascend to a religious pulpit, I would urge, using an equal measure of logic and passion, my fellow black citizens to conduct their own experiment: trust the system and protect themselves, their families and their communities.
I would not presume that I would be effective, or even slightly convincing. That would be hubris.
I believe that the vaccine and those administering it are color-blind. I believe it critically important that the Covid-19 menace must stop ruling and ruining our lives.
Deep-seated fear of white medicine and white promises must be thrust aside for the sake of safety.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.