There aren’t many Black Americans who don’t know about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. At some point, someone told us about the hundreds of Black men from rural Alabama who were forced to suffer from untreated syphilis.
They didn’t have to suffer. During the 40-year period, penicillin became widely accepted as an effective treatment for the sexually transmitted disease. But the government deliberately withheld treatment in order to see what would happen.
It was done without the men’s knowledge and consent. In return, the government provided them with burial insurance.
Long before President Bill Clinton apologized on behalf of the nation, the story was told to generations of Black Americans, handed down from great-grandparents to grandparents to parents to children.
It has long haunted Black Americans. Now it has circled back to haunt America.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first vaccine for COVID-19. The groundbreaking vaccine is seen as a powerful front-line offense against the virus that has killed more than 298,000 Americans and crippled the nation.
But it won’t work unless enough people take it to establish herd immunity. More than half of Black Americans said they would not get the vaccine, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. That’s a huge problem for the government.
The Tuskegee story is not a fable from long ago. It happened during our lifetime, from 1932 to 1972. Some of us might have known the victims. And we know other stories, as well.
There is the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman who died of cancer in 1951 as doctors and scientists experimented with cells that were taken from her body without her knowledge.
And there was the era of 20th century eugenics, where thousands upon thousands of Black American women who went to state health facilities for routine medical procedures were sterilized without their knowledge.
To most white people, the Tuskegee study is, of course, considered tragic. But it was no more significant than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Such apathy — or ignorance — made it more tragic. Now, it has put all Americans at risk.
These stories are as ingrained in Black American culture as deeply as the historical narratives of slaves and sharecroppers. The details may have been altered over time as it went from one tongue to another, but the message has remained the same.
“Black Americans should never take a vaccine.”
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a flu shot, a shingles shot, a hepatitis shot, a COVID-19 shot or even an HIV shot, if one should become available. This fear has forced Black people to stay away from clinical trials and all types of medical studies, even if our community is ravaged by disease.
The reasoning is simple. “The government wants to experiment on Black people to see what could happen to white people. They don’t care if we get sick from it. They don’t care if we die.”
The Tuskegee study was the ultimate betrayal of a race of people that continues to endure more mistreatment from their country than anyone deserves. It was proof that our government had no qualms about sacrificing us for the greater good of the nation. We always have been asked to give more than we receive.
America never particularly cared whether Black people decided to get a flu shot. Though encouraged, protecting oneself from the flu largely is considered a personal choice.
Likewise, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ignored HIV/AIDS in the Black community for years during the early onset as it spread out of control.
But COVID-19 is different. Everyone needs to take the vaccine in order to rid the country of the virus and get the economy going again.
Suddenly, everybody is talking about the Black anti-vaccine problem. The government is scrambling to figure out how to get Black people to trust the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine that was quickly developed.
But the larger question is this: “How does America get Black people to trust America?”
A public service ad by a Black celebrity won’t do it. Nor will a video showing the first Black president rolling up his sleeve to receive the vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, suggested at a National Urban League event that Black Americans should be reassured because a Black woman, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, helped lead the development of the vaccine.
Black Americans lit into him on social media. While Fauci likely had good intentions, his words pointed to the government’s severe miscalculation of the depth of Black distrust.
Tuskegee is a story of deep betrayal, not just by the U.S. government but also by our own people who collaborated in this inhumane act. No one could be trusted.
Both Black and white doctors perpetrated the syphilis experiment. It involved a historically Black university, the former Tuskegee Institute. More than 120 Black medical students helped conduct the study. Black doctors in the area agreed not to treat the men if they came in on their own.
America is asking Black people once again to put the past behind and look toward the future — for the country’s sake. Many of us will roll up our sleeves because we know that if we don’t, our people will continue to die from COVID-19 at higher rates than anyone.
The consequences of refusing to do what America asks are much steeper for Blacks than for others. But do not blame those who are too terrified to trust America.
Trust must be earned. And America has given Black people very little reason to believe anything it says.