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FAQ City: Why Are Many African Americans Reluctant To Get The COVID-19 Vaccine?

Courtesy Atrium Health

In November, The Pew Research Center found that 42% of African Americans would take the COVID-19 vaccine — the lowest among any other racial and ethnic group. Davida Jackson of Charlotte wanted to know why.

“I would like to see more in-depth reporting on the history of African Americans’ distrust of the U.S. medical system and the impact on the COVID-19 vaccine,” Jackson told FAQ City.

Jackson has seen the reports of distrust in Black communities on the vaccine but she wanted to know the story behind the numbers.

“A lot of the media reports are very dismissive as far as like, ‘Oh, they just distrust it,’” Jackson said. “But nobody really talks about why.”

“The focus need not be on why African Americans aren't trusting, but that the American medical establishment has consistently and explicitly preyed on Black people,” said Zinobia Bennefield, a professor at UNC Charlotte who studies medical sociology and health disparities.

A History Of Abuse

Black people have been abused and subjected to systemic racism in the medical field for a long time. In the 1800s, James Marion Sims used enslaved people as test subjects. According to Bennefield, Sims wrote in his diaries about buying 12- and 13-year-old girls to use in his experiments.

“There are just horror stories about him,” she said. “Giving the girls narcotics to keep them from running away, having the girls hold each other down while he performs the surgeries without anesthesia.”

The techniques Sims used changed women’s health, to the degree that he is called the “father of modern gynecology.” He had a statue in Central Park until it was removed in 2018. Sims’ diary entries and work were well-documented for years.

How Henrietta Lacks Changed Medicine Without Knowing It

Another reason for distrust can be found in Henrietta Lacks’ story. Lacks was a Black woman who fell ill with cervical cancer in the 1950s. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital took her cells, without her permission or knowledge, and learned that they could multiply and grow.

Lacks passed away shortly after her diagnosis. But her cells, called HeLa cells, changed the world. HeLa cells were used in developing the polio vaccine and numerous medications. All of the HeLa cells grown since the 1950s together would weigh more than 50 million metric tons, Rebecca Skloot, who wrote a book on Lacks’ life and legacy, told NPR.

“If you put her cells end-on-end, they’d wrap around the Earth three times,” Skloot said.

According to a study in the journal Nature, HeLa cells are also part of COVID-19 vaccine research. Although Lacks’ cells helped scientists and companies make discoveries and generated profits, Lacks’ family was never compensated. Her relatives recently sued Johns Hopkins, alleging that the hospital and drug companies have made billions of dollars from her cells.

African Americans And Distrust In The Government

Black Americans have higher rates of COVID-19 infection and related death. Bennefield said the disease is not unique.

“COVID is impacting us at higher rates,” Bennefield said. “But everything is impacting us at higher rates. When it rains in America, it floods in the Black community. And it's very difficult to trust … if you associate the source of the problem as also being the source of the solution that they go hand in hand.”

Just 9% of African Americans trust the government always or most of the time, according toa Pew Research study from 2019.

The mistrust of government can impact government medical initiatives, said Dr. Chris Branner, specialty medical director for urgent care at Atrium Health.

“When you have vaccination programs that are largely government-driven programs, if there is underlying distrust in the government, at whatever level, that taints the messenger,” Branner said.

Branner, who is Black, has received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine but said he understands where the mistrust originated.

In 1932, the U.S. government began one of its most notorious studies. It wanted to study untreated syphilis in Black men. In Alabama, 600 Black men, some who had syphilis and some who did not, received treatment for “bad blood.”

None of them knew they were part of an experiment, and the men who had syphilis did not receive proper treatment. The study was only ended after public outcry in the 1970s.

A History Of Forced Sterilization

Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina’s Eugenics Board authorized local health departments to sterilize nearly 8,000 people.

People of all races were sterilized but, according to Duke University research, Black residents were targeted in the later years of the study, with the goal of reducing the Black population in North Carolina. Teenagers, people in mental institutions, youth homes and young mothers were also targeted.

Most states ended their eugenics programs in the 1940s and early 50s. North Carolina’s lasted until the 1970s. Forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis study are two examples of why many Black Americans are distrustful of government, Bennefield said.

“I was speaking to someone and they said, ‘I don't take anything from the American government, especially if it's free. Especially if they tell me it's for my own good,’” Bennefield said.

What Happens Now?

Branner said that in some ways, the mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccine is stronger than the fear of dying from the disease.

“That's the imbalance that I have to try to reach out to folks and talk through to understand and recognize the psychology behind that mindset,” he said.

Branner said he is talking with Black people and others, like health care workers, who are hesitant about the vaccine. He also reaches out to community leaders like pastors and heads of local NAACP chapters.

For Davida Jackson, acknowledgment and education about the mistreatment of Black people in medicine would be a start. She said historically, Black people were either thought of as strong enough to withstand any pain or not even people at all, but tools used for research.

“When we tell doctors, we're hurting, they think we're superhuman, and they're like, ‘Oh, you're not in pain, you'll be fine.’ That's not the truth. We're humans, we just have a different color, you know?” Jackson said.


Alexandra Watts is an interim assistant producer on Charlotte Talks. Previously, she worked with WFAE as a Report for America corps member, reporting on local government and community issues through a partnership between WFAE and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.