As the United States continues to roll out the COVID-19 vaccines, researchers have noted a lag in vaccination rates among Black Americans compared to other groups. While healthcare officials and advocates have pointed to a digital divide and insufficient supplies, many have brought up the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as fueling skepticism among Black people, some critics are saying that’s just an excuse not to address the nation’s history and ongoing perpetuation of medical racism.
The 40-year-long Tuskegee Syphilis Study was conducted on hundreds of men in Alabama. Doctors left the men untreated to see how the disease progresses through the body.
“It’s ‘Oh, Tuskegee, Tuskegee, Tuskegee,’ and it’s mentioned every single time,” Karen Lincoln, a social work professor at the University of Southern California said during an interview with KQED radio station, per BET News. “We make these assumptions that it’s Tuskegee. We don’t ask people.”
Lincoln says in her work with elderly people throughout the Los Angeles area, the infamous study isn’t mentioned. Instead, her clients talk about the racial barriers to adequate healthcare access when discussing their hesitancy to getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“It’s a scapegoat,” Lincoln said. “It’s an excuse. If you continue to use it as a way of explaining why many African Americans are hesitant, it almost absolves you of having to learn more, do more, involve other people –– admit that racism is actually a thing today.”
“If you say Tuskegee, then you don’t have to acknowledge things like pharmacy deserts, things like poverty and unemployment,” she added. “You can just say, ‘That happened then. Things are different now and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Some Black seniors say they want to get the vaccine, but the difficulty in getting an appointment, fuels skepticism in the system. Maxine Toler, a 72-year-old resident spoke with the radio station and said people in her age group also express concern for personal safety, religious beliefs, and distrust of former president Donald Trump who perpetuated false information as other reasons for not wanting the vaccine.
“If you ask them what was it about and why do you feel like it would impact your receiving the vaccine, they can’t even tell you,” Toler said, adding that the COVID-19 rollout is “almost opposite of Tuskegee, because they were being denied treatment. And this is like we’re pushing people forward: Go and get this vaccine. We want everybody to be protected from COVID.”
Dr. Reuben Warren, director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University, said that the assumption the Tuskegee Study would cause Black people to not want to participate in modern medical services was untrue.
“The hesitancy is there, but the refusal is not. And that’s an important difference,” Warren told KQED. “That was the excuse they used. If I don’t want to go to the extra energy, resources to include the population, I can simply say they were not interested. They refused.”
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