I recently had a conversation with a younger friend of mine – a black man in his thirties here in Atlanta – about whether I would get the COVID-19 vaccine when it was available to me and whether I should.
My answer was clear: absolutely.
So it was: absolutely not. At least not yet, only when he could see over a long period of time how others reacted to it. In fact, he was a bit surprised that I really wanted to be vaccinated, which I treated as gullible or naive on my part.
It wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t trust vaccines; it was that he didn’t trust the government that was driving it. I believe this suspicion is an underrated part of vaccine reluctance, especially among younger blacks.
It is now a well-known fact that blacks get the vaccine less than their white counterparts and also express more doubts about it. However, these numbers are more complicated than the main findings suggest.
A poll published Thursday by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found some interesting age differences. As CNN reported, “The survey, conducted in December 2020, also found older black adults and men more willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, 68 percent of adults aged 60 and over said they would receive the vaccine, while only 38 percent of black adults ages 18 to 44 said they would receive the vaccine. Many of the younger respondents expressed distrust of the health system and said that people are treated unfairly because of their race and ethnic background, according to survey results. “
The “distrust of the health system” is real in the black community. I have written about the implications of the entire history of the United States’ medical failures and abuses with black people.
Perhaps most notably, at least in the last century, were the Tuskegee experiments, where hundreds of black men were told they were being treated for syphilis when they weren’t. They were watched to see how the disease would progress. These men suffered from this experiment for 40 years. The Associated Press presented the program in 1972.
But the blacks in the age group most resistant to the vaccine today were not alive when this experiment was conducted. In fact, older men, those who may have been alive during that time – those whose peers were affected by the Tuskegee experiment – are more likely to want the vaccine.
It occurs to me that something bigger could add to these numbers: a general distrust of a government that has repeatedly disappointed, disregarded, and dehumanized blacks. This is a phenomenon that can be felt most clearly by young people.
These young people have grown up at a time when mass incarceration has freed entire neighborhoods from brothers and cousins, fathers and uncles. They came of age when the predatory war on drugs worn down black bodies and wasted human capital.
They have come of age in an age when the police killed unarmed blacks, and these officers and the systems that animated them have rarely been brought to justice. You have grown up watching the government cover up the bad treatment of blacks. They watched the government permit and even cause the Flint water crisis in Michigan and put their feet up as the people of New Orleans suffered after Hurricane Katrina and the people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
For four years you have watched uninterrupted corruption by Donald Trump, a man who has lied incessantly and whose government has not curtailed the virus at all.
From the point of view of blacks, especially many young people, the government has documented documentary evidence that it is untrustworthy that the health and welfare of blacks and black bodies is not their concern. In fact, the opposite can be true.
I went back and forth with my 30-year-old friend, discussing the science of the vaccine, discussing the disproportionate impact of the virus on the black community, and the importance of getting as many black people as possible to be vaccinated. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found, “At this level, the proportion of high-trust whites (27 percent) is twice as high as the proportion of black (13 percent) and Hispanic adults (12 percent). The older a person is, the more likely they are to tend towards more trusting answers. “
But I could see in his eyes that his vision was clouded by the darkness of suspicion. How could the same government that is destroying so many black lives trust its intentions to save his?
For him, the vaccine was not just a product of medical research and science; It was also part of a government campaign and system imposition. In an America where blacks have seen tools used as weapons too often, hesitation will be a major hurdle.
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for the New York Times.