What image comes to mind when you hear the word “doctor”? If your mind’s eye didn’t immediately conjure your personal physician, what image appeared? There’s a good chance that it was a white (probably older) man, perhaps wearing a white lab coat. For most Americans, regardless of their race, that image tends to evoke comfort, reassurance and even happiness.
But, for a substantial percentage of African Americans, the scientific community — including physicians — invokes very different responses. Such responses often include psychological, and even physiological, trauma. For example, even going to the doctor’s office can be enough to cause a temporary rise in our blood pressure. In short, African Americans’ historical experience with the scientific community has frequently been far less benevolent than it generally has been for white Americans.
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The quintessential example of this history is what hundreds of Black men endured during the infamous “Tuskegee Experiment.” During this 40-year deadly charade (1932-1972), doctors intentionally failed to treat Black men who they (i.e., the doctors) knew had been infected with syphilis. (This is despite the fact that the doctors knew that penicillin would cure the disease.) Further, a recent paper written by researchers from Stanford Medical School and the University of Tennessee suggests that the Tuskegee Experiment causes Black men who are now around age 50 to live a year less than we otherwise might.
As someone who worked in academia for several years, I am quite familiar with the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When conducting research on “human subjects” (i.e., people), academicians are required to follow guidelines that are set forth by their school’s “institutional review board.” This is to ensure that the subjects are treated with the highest ethical standards. However, most researchers are not aware that such safeguards were put in place as a direct result of the Tuskegee Experiment.
Sadly, there are myriad other examples of blatant medical malfeasance involving African Americans. Further, even when the scientific community hasn’t engaged in intentional medical malpractice, it has advanced pseudo-scientific (and racist) theories, such as eugenics, that have negatively affected us. Another example is the fact that white doctors have been shown to believe — erroneously — that Black people have a higher tolerance for pain than whites. (One positive effect of this misinformation is that we are much less likely to become addicted to opioids, which doctors prescribe less frequently to us.)
This leads me to COVID-19 and the reality that African Americans are less likely to become vaccinated against it, despite the fact that we are at a higher risk of contracting and dying from the disease than are white Americans. The reluctance that many of us feel is directly tied to our history with the scientific community. Long before social media, our ancestors handed down story after story of mistreatment by doctors. Those stories have had a lasting effect on our trust.
As someone who believes strongly in the scientific method and empirical data, it pains me to know that many of the people who are most affected by the pandemic are also among the most likely to believe that the vaccine is a government plot either to harm us or to track our whereabouts. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I completely understand why that is the case.
To be sure, African Americans are not the only ones who have been skeptical of the medical community. In 1954, the New York Health Department launched a major campaign to encourage citizens to get the polio vaccine. Famed (and infamous) columnist Walter Winchell vehemently attacked the vaccine. Winchell said that it “may be a killer.” Interestingly, in 1956, Elvis Presley got injected with the vaccine live on the set of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Vaccinations dramatically increased afterward.
I doubt that even an endorsement of the COVID-19 vaccine from Beyonce would have the same kind of impact that Elvis’ gesture did. Still, I suspect that high-profile people taking the vaccine would — pardon me — “move the needle.” While it is difficult to overcome the realities of history, the potential to save hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions) is worth the understandable risk.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.