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How Black People Learned Not to Trust Public Health

It would appear that the people in American hit hardest by Covid-19 — Black people — are also the group most leery about the prospects of a vaccine.

As a Pew Research report published last week pointed out: “Black Americans are especially likely to say they know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of having the coronavirus: 71 percent say this, compared with smaller shares of Hispanic (61 percent), White (49 percent) and Asian-American (48 percent) adults.”

But that same report contained the following: “Black Americans continue to stand out as less inclined to get vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups: 42 percent would do so, compared with 63 percent of Hispanic and 61 percent of white adults.”

The unfortunate American fact is that Black people in this country have been well-trained, over centuries, to distrust both the government and the medical establishment on the issue of health care.

In the mid-1800s a man in Alabama named James Marion Sims gained national renown as a doctor after performing medical experiments on enslaved women, who by definition of their position in society could not provide informed consent.

He performed scores of experimental operations on one woman alone, an enslaved woman named Anarcha, before perfecting his technique.

Not only that, he operated on these women without anesthesia, in part because he didn’t believe that Black women experienced pain in the same way that white women did, a dangerous and false sensibility whose remnants linger to this day.


After the Civil War and the freeing of the enslaved, the limited and fragile infrastructure for Black people in this country collapsed and an epidemic of disease flourished.

Many formerly enslaved people were estranged from the small gardens they used to grow things for home remedies. The larger plantation that had sick houses saw operations cease.

White doctors refused to see Black people and white hospitals refused to admit them. Furthermore, federal, state and local governments squabbled over whose responsibility it was to provide health care for the newly freed men and women, with no entity truly wanting to assume that responsibility.

Because of all of this, Jim Downs, a professor at Gettysburg College, estimates that at least one quarter of all former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870.

Read entire article at New York Times