Trigger warning: I’m just saying… there’s a high risk that something in here is going to make you cringe.
I happened to catch a glimpse of a Sunday morning news show, where the panelists were discussing the fears of Black Americans who are reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccine. Where one panelist, a black man, referenced the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, a second panelist—also a Black man—responded, “We’re not in Tuskegee anymore!”
I couldn’t do anything except sigh. Believe it or not, they both were wrong.
I’ve been having conversations with Black people about our collective and individual health for a long time, now. And for years, we’ve talked about what we see, what we’ve felt, and what we’ve experienced. The word “Tuskegee” hasn’t come up once.
Medical science has an abysmal track record with Black America. There simply isn’t any other way to put it. There’s the time when scientists deliberately watched Black men with syphilis suffer and denied them care as a means of testing the ramifications of the illness.
But there’s more than that. So, so much more.
There’s also the time when James Marion Sims, known as “The Father of Gynecology”, experimented on enslaved women without anesthesia, and then took his newfound techniques and treatments to a women’s hospital that he founded, with the sole purpose of treating wealthy white women… with anesthesia. One of his most enduring contributions to the consciousness of medical science is the unfounded idea that Black people don’t feel pain. To this day, people are trying to absolve Sims’ reputation of the scorn it receives in the current climate—repeating the nonsensical idea that his statues shouldn’t be torn down merely because he’s “a product of his time.”
“His time,” to be clear, was a period in history where white people were given carte blanche to be sociopaths.
There’s also the time when Black women were sterilized, without their consent, often as a response to newly freedwomen relying more heavily upon government programs like welfare. Black women were considered to be promiscuous and “uncontrollable” and, therefore, the eugenics program which sterilized predominantly Black women and other women of color was painted as a public good. It’s worth noting that even teenagers, teenagers who had never even given birth or had given birth after being sexually assaulted, had been sterilized, too.
Please note that this kind of horrific practice still exists, in one form or another, today.
We can also talk about the origins of birth control—the early experimentation on women in a Puerto Rican housing project without consent—and the eagerness to determine the efficacy of the prescription in order to sell to the more affluent white populations within mainland United States.
Or we could talk about Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose genetic material was harvested without her consent during a doctor’s visit and is continuously replicated and used in laboratories across the globe today.
I… I really could go on and on about this all day. The list is truly that long. If I unfurled it, it would be like letting a fresh roll of paper towels unravel down a hill.
But Black people are not, across the board, thinking about the entries on this list of historic medical harm. We are thinking about what we are seeing today.
We are thinking about the maternal mortality rate—the number of women who are dying each year during or directly proceeding something as routine as childbirth. We are thinking about the number of Black people succumbing to common chronic illnesses around us each day, and wondering why we can prescribe regimens for 13 pills each day, amounting to more than 90 pills each week, but not actually prescribe that which cures or eliminates the burden of the disease altogether. We are thinking about how today, in 2020 the year of our Beyoncé, we have medical students still saying they believe Black people do not experience the same way white people do.
It is easier to think of Black people as super human and subhuman simultaneously than it is to think of any white man as a sociopath.
We are thinking about how the story is the same no matter where you look: hospitals in predominantly Black communities keep closing in every city, every state. We see the same kind of hospital deserts arising and leaving us without sufficient access to care. The per capita rate for hospitals in communities like ours means that even if there is a hospital nearby, if we all needed care at the same time—sort of like what we’ve seen over the past year with coronavirus spreading like wildfire among our neighborhoods—we wouldn’t be able to get it.
We are realizing that there is something wrong with health care in America, and instead of investing financially in fixing it, we are seeing our culture and identity being blamed for it. We needed to be sterilized, and Puerto Rican women needed to be experimented on, without our consent because we were promiscuous and, by extension, posing a burden on the state. Black men needed to be allowed to suffer from syphilis because, as U.S. Public Health Service physician Dr. Thomas W. Murrell said, “the effort to assimilate a complex civilization drives their diseased minds until the results are criminal records. […] Disease will accomplish what man cannot do.”
Instead of recognizing the humanity of Black people, instead of showing empathy for our pain, at every turn the corners are cut. If a penny could be made by causing us harm, the penny was made; if a penny could be saved by cutting corners on our care, the penny was saved. No one was held accountable for harming us, and we were expected to live on with the trauma and consequences of those who ultimately went on to experience wealth and notoriety. It wasn’t until literally 2018 when Sims’ statue was torn down from Central Park, New York City. Survivors of the sterilizations of the past are only just now receiving retribution. Henrietta Lacks’ family is still trying to prevent this kind of harm from being replicated.
Surely, you can see how this translates to the discussion of vaccination.
If all of the harm and damage tends to predominantly be directed at Black people, it would not be viewed favorably to state that “we will give it to Black Americans first.” A disproportionate amount of COVID-19-related harm and death has been felt by Black people, as is. How would we be able to trust that intentions to vaccinate us first are pure? If there is harm from the vaccine concentrated among us, how would we trust that this harm is enough to remove the drug from circulation?
We may not always have the language of empathy, but we recognize situations where empathy is being denied to us. We have to see and hear people in power put themselves in our shoes, say ‘wow, this is unacceptable,’ and change. The refusal to do this has created the mistrust.
Changing this climate of conspiracy and mistrust requires leadership from the people in power—it requires investment in the hospital and health care infrastructure to ensure that when we need care, we can get it. It requires regulation that penalizes those who violate our rights to consent to care, and significant punitive restitution be paid to those who have suffered… and media has to uncover and report it when it happens. We have to see that people care about us enough to protect us preemptively from harm, and that those who are hellbent on harming us will actually be forced to suffer a consequence and pay restitution.
In a world where so much as an exhale can cause unquantifiable harm, it has finally been recognized that our well being is attached to everyone else’s. This isn’t the first pandemic, and won’t be the last. It matters how we mend this rift, not just to heal Black people, but to protect our nation and prepare us as a nation for the next time.
Because, rest assured, there will be a next time.
For more information on the unfortunate history of Black Americans and the medical industry, check out Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. Using my link to purchase will put literally a few pennies into this blog.