Posted on December 10, 2020

How Black People Learned Not to Trust

Charles Blow, New York Times, December 6, 2020

It would appear that the people in America hit hardest by Covid-19 — Black people — are also the group most leery about the prospects of a vaccine.

As a Pew Research report published last week pointed out: “Black Americans are especially likely to say they know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of having the coronavirus: 71 percent say this, compared with smaller shares of Hispanic (61 percent), White (49 percent) and Asian-American (48 percent) adults.”

But that same report contained the following: “Black Americans continue to stand out as less inclined to get vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups: 42 percent would do so, compared with 63 percent of Hispanic and 61 percent of white adults.”

The unfortunate American fact is that Black people in this country have been well-trained, over centuries, to distrust both the government and the medical establishment on the issue of health care.

In the mid-1800s a man in Alabama named James Marion Sims gained national renown as a doctor after performing medical experiments on enslaved women, who by definition of their position in society could not provide informed consent.


After the Civil War and the freeing of the enslaved, the limited and fragile infrastructure for Black people in this country collapsed and an epidemic of disease flourished.

Many formerly enslaved people were estranged from the small gardens they used to grow things for home remedies. The larger plantation that had sick houses saw operations cease.

White doctors refused to see Black people and white hospitals refused to admit them. {snip}


For nearly half of the 20th century, women — often Black — were forcibly sterilized, often without their knowledge. {snip}


Furthermore, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains: “In 1932, the Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for blacks. It was called the ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.’ ”

Hundreds of Black men were told they were being treated for syphilis, but they were not. They were being observed to see how the disease would progress. The men suffered under this experiment for 40 years.

I hope that America can overcome Black people’s trepidations about this vaccine, but it is impossible to say that that trepidation doesn’t have historical merit.