Where does the Black community’s mistrust of healthcare comes from?

“Don’t let them treat you with a vaccine, with their history of treachery through vaccines, through medications…” exclaimed renowned Nation of Islam Minister, Louis Farrakhan, in an internationally broadcasted address this past 4th of July. Although reports show that Black people in America are dying at disproportionately high rates from the Coronavirus pandemic, Farrakhan’s sentiments are fairly pervasive throughout black American communities. At one point, polls showed that just ~25% of Black adults in the US reported being willing to take the vaccines when they were released – even with wide-scale skepticism surrounding the Coronavirus vaccine vaccines, that’s still about half of the national average! When asked about their disapproval of the vaccine, Black people have given answers ranging from conspiracy theories that promulgate the pandemic being a hoax to safety concerns that the vaccine hasn’t been tested long enough. As wide-ranging as these reasons seem, most all of these answers stem from the same source: distrust in the American government and its institutions.

Where is Black people’s mistrust coming from?

     This mistrust I speak of is one that is deep-seated, deriving from years of mistreatment inflicted on them by America’s institutions. From Jim-Crow to the creation of ghettos, structured forms of discrimination have subjected generations of Black Americans to serious trauma. The slew of systematic and incidental injustices in occupational, educational, health, and other realms have contributed to wide-ranging and long-lasting racial disparity, all of which have collectively communicated to Black people that America is not fully vested in their livelihoods as citizens. 

Historical Backing behind Black adults’ mistrust

The Tuskegee Experiments

     Of the countless many incidents, perhaps the most referenced are the infamous Tuskegee Experiments (1932-1972). The experiments are a prime example of the great distortion and unethical nature in which Black people are dealt with by America’s institutions. From the onset, the study was riddled with unjustness as researchers gathered their Black participants through fraudulent advertisement. Falsely promoted as a syphilis study offering free access to medical care to Black American men suffering from syphilis and various other ailments, hundreds of Black American men signed up to take part. Unbeknownst to them, however, that the study was actually a long term-research project for researchers to investigate the progression of syphilis. For years, the participants were given faulty placebos, while they were under the impression that they were receiving treatment. Even when it was discovered that penicillin was a successful form of treatment for syphilis in the 1940’s, researchers withheld legitimate treatment from participants. Throughout the duration of the study, these men suffered tremendously, experiencing serious damage to their eyes, heart, blood vessels, livers, bones, joints, and cognitive health. What was meant to be a six-month project, ended up lasting 40 years and only ceased after news broke about its unethical nature. By that time hundreds of the participants had died, had gone mentally insane, and/or had given syphilis to their wives, mostly Black woman, and children. It is no wonder there is a lack of trust among Black patients of health care providers. 

Injustices After Tuskegee

   It has been over 40 years since the horrific Tuskegee Experiments came to an end. Yet the distrust it supplanted in the hearts of Black Americans has not just remained, but in fact has grown stronger.

     Since then, there have been several incidents that have exacerbated the rift between the Black community and American institutions. We’ve had the government’s poor intervention in the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged people of color disproportionally in the 90’s, as well as their poor response to Hurricane Katrina that disproportionately devastated Black communities in 2005; we’ve also had skyrocketing mass incarceration of Black men due to increasingly punitive criminal justice laws, such as the “stop and frisk” policy and the Rockefeller laws across the past four decades; and most recently, we’ve had a string of heinous police brutality incidents against Black men, Black woman and children across the country… and this is just to name a few. 

     This is not to mention the government’s persistent failure to address high levels of systemic inequalities in schooling, access to health care, and employment opportunities – all of which have contributed to ongoing high rates of poverty in Black communities. These systemic failures have ever more manifested themselves in the current COVID-19 crisis.

Persistent Black distrust in the face of COVID-19

Occupational Disparities:

     Amongst many things, the inequalities have had the adverse effect of pigeonholing many Black Americans into essential worker jobs. In essential occupations, like maintenance, production, transportation and nursing, Black representation is two (and in some cases even three) times than other races. As these jobs support the backbone of society, many Black Americans had no choice but to continue in-person working in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. The problem with this was that due to the nature of these jobs, they placed Black Americans in high risk of coming in contact with the virus. Thus, as now supported by compelling research, this disproportionate representation in these jobs ultimately placed Black Americans in greater danger than white people in the face of the pandemic.

Health Disparities:

   Apart from this, researchers have found that the disproportionately high mortality rates witnessed by the Black community since the onslaught of the pandemic are directly tied to significant racial disparities in access to health care and quality of living. There is also the concern of the quality of care that health care providers offer to Black patients compared to white patients. The underlying conditions that give COVID its severe illness status and its deadly potency in human bodies – for instance, diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure – are particularly pronounced in Black communities due to ongoing disinvestment in their public health. Now, the government has long been aware of this disinvestment. Yet only in light of the high COVID-19 death toll in Black communities has it been put to the fore in the public’s purview. For those within Black communities, the fact that it takes a pandemic to get the country to pay attention to these ongoing issues is frustrating beyond measure and speaks immensely to just how little America truly cares for them – the high death toll, yet another slap in the face, adding to the already deep-seated feelings of victimization.

While the pandemic continues to ravage through Black communities, Black Americans apathetically wait to see how the government will respond. Will this alarming death toll merely be treated as a reminder of the great inequalities that exist in this country or will it be treated as a wake-up call, a call to action by America’s institutions?

I suppose only time will tell.

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