In recent news, the Covid-19 vaccine by Pfizer has rolled out to the United States and “high-risk” healthcare workers are the first to be injected with the novel vaccine. In most cases, this achievement has been met with the excitement and joy the American people felt when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. However, there is a sizable demographic of Black Americans with a less than lukewarm reception for this milestone.
Let’s take a short trip down memory lane of America’s past with Black people. The obvious location to start is slavery but going there seems almost too easy (and almost too easy for naysayers to dismiss). I will skip the parts about Black people getting the worst parts of animals to live on, the shacks they were given when too old to work, and the obvious lack of payment for their labor (this needs no source, it’s called slavery). Instead, I will start at the point Black people became second-class citizens (there really is no other word for it because we are moving into reconstruction and Jim Crow). During this period of time, the medical community alone injected Black men with syphilis for 40 years, Black women were used a gynecological guinea pigs, the recent statistics on the maternal morbidity rate for Black women, Henrietta Lacks, just to name a few.
In the New York Times article, “U.S. Starts Vaccine Rollout as High-Risk Health Care Workers Go First,” there is an almost insidious message sitting at the helm of the term “high-risk”. For anyone who has been paying attention in 2020, Black people have been increasingly referred to as “high-risk” for the novel coronavirus. With this knowledge and historical context, it is increasingly odd that of all the people to first try this new vaccine, it is a Black woman. When administered the vaccine she said, “I want people who look like me and are associated with me to know it’s safe.” I’m no linguistic specialist, but I know public relations preparation when I see it.
In Clubhouse rooms, across Twitter, and pretty much anywhere Black and white people co-inhabit, the discussion around who will be taking the vaccine has occurred. Our first Black woman Vice-President was even asked this question during an earlier debate. In hindsight, the question alone must force you to ask, “Was this another tactic to get a Black woman to rally Black people into taking a vaccine? Was Kamala’s answer to not trusting a Trump/Pence vaccine enough?” Or what about Dr. Fauci being sure to say, “So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman. And that is just a fact.” If you have read this far, you may have already noticed that most of my above list who suffered at the hands of medical practitioners was Black women. Something seems unsettling.
In all of this conversation around the vaccine, it must be taken into account that Black Americans are often the first to be boxed out of all prosperous opportunities and the first to be used in trials and tests. Let’s take another trip down America’s Black memory lane: red-lining, food deserts, unemployment rates, jobs in the service/ “essential-workers” industry, medical malpractice, and access to educational opportunities. The list goes on. For the first time in what feels like forever, Black Americans were put first for something that has the chance to be prosperous and important. But, the media feeding the idea that they need to be the first ones administered a vaccine (created at a speed never seen before) because they are dying in abundance, seems less than noble. Unfortunately, Black Americans have been suffering and dying at the hands of greater inflictions for years, but reformative justice is continually on the chopping block.
One thing is for certain, this vaccine is rolling out and Americans are watching their stocks. Take that particular word as need be because the horse can only be led to water. Black people have a long and damaging past and present with the medical community, and it is intellectually lazy to write them off as being among the anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist crowds. Black Americans don’t want to watch their loved ones die in abundance from yet another disease that leaves them exposed and vulnerable. They want to be safe and make sure others feel the same way. They just may not be ready to go first.