A Carefree Vaccine is a White Privilege

As I begin to write this article, my arm is still sore from the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine I received only two days ago. The muscle soreness is an uncomfortable nuisance, yet it is a persistent reminder that I have finally faced my fear of being injected with a novel substance at the behest of societal and governmental pressure. 

I had delayed getting the vaccine for months. When the shots were first introduced to the public, I set a specific number of Americans that needed to be vaccinated before I would. First, it was 100 million, but that came and went. Then it was 150 million, and that milestone was reached too. Finally, when the United States hit the benchmark of 50% of its population fully vaccinated, and after observing the health of peers who had already been vaccinated, I could no longer find a reason to neglect receiving my shot. 

For me, and for many other Black Americans, facing this fear was no small feat. I am 6’3, 190 pounds, but I have never felt tinier than I did in Walgreens signing paperwork and discussing with the pharmacists what specific vaccines they offered at their location. I’ve never felt smaller than when I was waiting in the lobby, increasing my anxiety by reading articles detailing the troubled history Black Americans have been subjected to by American medical institutions. Finally, I entered a small room to be vaccinated. Although the whole ordeal lasted thirty minutes, it felt like hours had passed by the time I left. 

A Sick History of Medicine in the United States

The fear of preventative medicine in Black culture is not illogical, nor is it unreasonable. It is the result of centuries of abuse and oppression at the hands of physicians, researchers, and other medical professionals — whose efforts were frequently funded, directed, and supported by the federal government. 

The most prominent manifestation of medical malpractice against Black Americans is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. This study, which began in 1932, was so impactful that many Black people, including myself, mention it first when explaining why they refuse to be vaccinated. 

The experiments at Tuskegee were not the first to study the effects of untreated syphilis in a community. Similar studies were conducted in Oslo, Norway between 1890 and 1910. The key difference between Oslo and Tuskegee, though, is that the Oslo studies were founded before the discovery of any effective treatment for syphilis, and were ended immediately after the discovery of arsenic therapy (an effective yet somewhat risky treatment). Tuskegee, on the other hand, was founded after the discovery of arsenic therapy and further continued after penicillin became the widely used cure that nearly eradicated syphilis. 

How could researchers justify not treating the test subjects despite knowing the risks of untreated syphilis and possessing treatment for it? Simply put, their test subjects were Black. Dr. Taliferro Clark, the initiator of the Tuskegee experiments, wrote this: “The [prevalence of syphilis] is due to the paucity of doctors, rather low intelligence of the Negro population, depressed economic conditions, and the very common promiscuous sex of this population group [that leads to] indifference with regard to treatment.” Clark and the other researchers believed that since Black people were too dumb, too poor, and too horny to ever seek treatment for themselves, they were simply observing the natural course of syphilis in Macon County, Alabama. 

Viewing Black Americans as simpleminded, inferior, and carnal was not a sentiment unique to Clark and his researchers; in fact, in the words of historian Allan Brandt, it was the prevailing scientific thought. Fueled by a misguided form of Darwinism, scientists theorized that Black people “could not be assimilated into a complex, white civilization.” This led to the prediction that the Black population in America would go extinct in the 20th century. Scientists believed that slavery was actually assisting the survival of Black people, and their newfound freedom would put them in mortal danger. 

It is also undeniable that scientists viewed Black Americans as hypersexual. One doctor wrote, “The Negro springs from a southern race, and as such, his sexual appetite is strong; all of his environments stimulate this appetite… and his emotional type of religion certainly does not decrease it.” Immoral, promiscuous, and unfazed by the spread of venereal diseases: that was medicine’s view of Black people. This view was so strong and widespread that one doctor actually estimated that 50% of Black people had syphilis. 

After receiving approval, Clark sent Dr. Raymond Vondelehr to Macon County to gather test subjects for the experiment. Because syphilis was perceived to be more common than it actually was in the Black community there, it was difficult for Vondelehr to find men to participate in the experiment. To persuade men to participate in the study, the researchers told subjects they were receiving a series of free treatments for “bad blood”, the rural Southern term for syphilis. In reality, the researchers were observing the subjects’ health as syphilis progressed in them, and they were not treated for syphilis for the duration of the experiments.  The Tuskegee test subjects were NOT voluntary participants in the experiments, they were lied to for decades in order to obtain their “consent.” 

Black people have lacked bodily autonomy since slavery. Slaves were routinely raped by their owners. Some of these women were married, and their husbands had no power to protect their wives from this brutality. Additionally, slaves who attempted to escape bondage were proclaimed to be mentally ill. Drapetomania, a conjectural mental illness, was the diagnosis given to slaves who desired freedom. The importance of Drapetomania cannot be overstated. To believe that a people are so far below oneself that their mere thought of freedom or equality is a diagnosable mental illness (one with a cure of “severe whipping or amputation of the toes”) is to believe that those people are not people at all. And if they are not people, then gaining their consent to medical treatment is irrelevant. 

Freedom did not bring Black Americans control over their bodies either. The early 1900s saw the rise of eugenics (literally “good birth”), a pseudoscience that focused on improving society by restricting those with “genetic deficiencies” from freely reproducing. In tune with the spirit of Tuskegee, being Black was frequently considered a genetic deficiency. Eugenics was so popular and widespread that it became enshrined in state laws across the country. Black women bore the brunt of these laws. In North Carolina, for example, 65% of the forced sterilizations conducted there were on Black women. 

Involuntary sterilizations were not limited to adults. Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf, 12 and 14 years old respectively, were two sisters from Montgomery, Alabama. One day, their mother, who was illiterate, took them to a reproductive health clinic so her daughters could receive their latest round of birth control shots. The clinic was no longer offering those shots and instead informed the mother that they could give the girls a procedure that would have the same effect as the shots. They did not explain that these effects would be permanent and irreversible. At the guidance of medical staff, she unknowingly checked a box on her paperwork that resulted in the  two young girls having their reproductive autonomy stripped from them.

Tuskegee is a lightning rod: it is an ultra-dramatic and unforgettable account of medical abuse uncovered by the American public. But it is critical to know that the sickness of American medicine is deeper than just one study, more widespread than one group of researchers, and has always presented a tangible danger to Black people. Although Tuskegee is just one example, it is a perfect example. The formulation, execution, and longevity of the experiment paints a beautifully twisted portrait of the American medical apparatus and its sentiments towards Black Americans.

Effects of Past Abuses are Still Present Today 

The Tuskegee experiments continued unabated for forty years. They were not officially ended until the American public found out about them in 1972. As recently as 1969, a group of doctors at the CDC had decided to continue the study. Four decades: in those years, America suffered the Great Depression; World War II was fought; a cure for syphilis was discovered; the Civil Rights movement came and went; a man even walked on the moon. Society, relative to 1932, had become more equitable, more progressive, and more open-minded. Still, the experiments continued. Society has continued to improve and progress since the end of the experiments. Do those improvements make it illogical for a Black person to be wary of a new vaccine? 

Not when that wariness is based in the brutally-twisted history that is American medicine. And not when, today: Black people are nearly twice as likely to have high blood pressure; not when Black people receive mental health treatment at half the rate of White people; not when Black people have the highest mortality rates for every type of cancer; and not when Black infant mortality rates are twice the national average. 

American medical institutions have not earned the trust of Black America. In fact, at every juncture of history, they have violated the little trust that existed. And instead of acknowledging that lack of trustworthiness and validity of fears within the Black community, the CDC and many of those in government have instead touted the vaccines as “safe and effective”, organized campaigns for celebrities to be vaccinated in public, and have derided those who remain unvaccinated. In other words, instead of addressing their past sins, their current shortcomings and attempting to build trust anew, they have engaged in superficial, sometimes divisive, public relations campaigns to pressure people to be vaccinated. 

Contrary to what they have implied, this is not an issue of a group of selfish people refusing to be vaccinated for ridiculous reasons and putting others in danger by doing so. The truth is, because of the oppressive functions of American medicine, protecting oneself and others (with peace of mind, at least) by taking the vaccine is a white privilege. Because of the aforementioned history, Black Americans cannot afford to blindly trust the same institutions that perpetrated so many horrors on their population. And it should not be their responsibility to face their fears, it should be the responsibility of the perpetrators to help absolve them. 

If a person is white, they should get vaccinated. Research has shown the vaccines to be the strongest weapons in the fight against the coronavirus. If a person is Black, they too, should get vaccinated. But they should also ensure their decision to be vaccinated is made from an informed and comfortable place, not from a place filled with fear, peer pressure, or guilt. 

Your anxiety is reasonable. Your fears are understandable. You are not selfish, uncaring, or inconsiderate of others. Research the vaccines as best you can and when you are comfortable, the vaccine will be there for you to take it. 

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