For months, journalists, politicians and health officials — including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci — have invoked the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study to explain why Black Americans are more hesitant than white Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine.
“It’s ‘Oh, Tuskegee, Tuskegee, Tuskegee,’ and it’s mentioned every single time,” said Karen Lincoln, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California and founder of Advocates for African American Elders. “We make these assumptions that it’s Tuskegee. We don’t ask people.”
When she asks Black seniors in Los Angeles about the vaccine, Tuskegee rarely comes up. People in the community talk about contemporary racism and barriers to health care, she said, while it seems to be mainly academics and officials who are preoccupied with the history of Tuskegee.
“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.”
It’s the health inequities of today that Maxine Toler, 72, hears about when she asks her friends and neighbors in Los Angeles what they think about the vaccine. As president of her city’s senior advocacy council and her neighborhood block club, Toler said she and most of the other Black seniors she talks with want the vaccine but are having trouble getting it. And that alone sows mistrust, she said.
Toler said the Black people she knows who don’t want the vaccine have very modern reasons for not wanting it. They talk about religious beliefs, safety concerns or a distrust of former U.S. President Donald Trump and his contentious relationship with science. Only a handful mention Tuskegee, she said, and when they do, they’re fuzzy on the details of what happened during the 40-year study.
“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,” she said.
Toler knows the details, but she said that history is a distraction from today’s effort to get people vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“It’s almost the opposite of Tuskegee,” she said. “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.”