For a town of 10,000, there’s a lot of America’s racial history packed into Tuskegee, Alabama.
Some of it is good. The Tuskegee airmen, the World War II fighter pilots who were the first all-black fighter squadron, were so named because they trained at Tuskegee University, the historically black college once led by Booker T. Washington.
Some of it is quite the opposite. Consider the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which 600 black men were enrolled in an experiment on the long-term effects of syphilis starting in 1932. Those who had the disease were promised treatment, although a control group was given a placebo so as to study the progression of the illness — which can eventually lead to insanity and death. This continued even though penicillin was widely recognized as a cure for syphilis just over a decade after the experiment began.
One of these two things, obviously, has contributed to vaccine hesitancy among black Americans. It wasn’t the one President Joe Biden attributed black vaccine hesitancy to during an interview earlier this week.
The gaffe came during a joint interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci conducted by YouTube influencer Jackie Aina and released Monday. During the interview, Biden said that “what I started was, when I set up this commission that we put together that Dr. Fauci is the best-known member of it, but that there’s another 20-some serious scientists and docs on it, I asked one person to do nothing but deal with equity.”
That person’s role, the president said, was “to make sure that we were reaching out into minority communities,” where memories could be long.
“By the way, many of the older members of that community had memories of experimentation on black Americans that were not told about, like what happened, with the, you know, Tuskegee airmen and all those tests,” Biden said.
“And so there was a great reluctance, and so I — we made sure to reach out” to those communities in a number of ways.
That gaffe didn’t go unnoticed:
Whoops. Joe Biden blames vaccine hesitancy among black people on the “experimentations” on the “Tuskegee Airmen” – (He was likely trying to speak about the entirely separate US government Tuskegee syphilis studies) pic.twitter.com/cFsFhcDQLZ
— Charlie Spiering (@charliespiering) May 26, 2021
There are plenty of people around who have heard of the Tuskegee experiment second-hand or as part of their school’s curriculum, even though it was only uncovered in 1972 by The Associated Press.
“In 1969, the [U.S. Public Health Service’s] Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, which has been in charge of the Tuskegee Study, reviewed records of 276 syphilitics, both treated and untreated, who participated in the experiment,” the AP’s original report read.
“It found that seven men had died as a direct result of syphilis. Another 154 died of heart failure, but CDC officials say they cannot determine now how many of these deaths were caused by syphilis or how many additional deaths may have been linked to the disease.”
“I think a definite moral problem existed when the study was undertaken, a more serious problem was overlooked in the post-war years when penicillin became available but was not given to these men, and a moral problem still exists,” Public Health Service official Dr. J.D. Millar was quoted as saying.
The vaccine-hesitant in the black community are also doubtlessly aware of the heroism of the Tuskegee airmen — as, indeed, are most Americans who remember something from their middle school history lessons and/or watched the movie “Red Tails.”
As for the vaccine-hesitant black individuals the president was trying to reach, they’re not going to be particularly impressed with a president who talked to them in dulcet tones about equity and health inequalities in the black community and then, literally seconds later, babbled on about “experimentation on black Americans that were not told about, like what happened, with the, you know, Tuskegee airmen and all those tests.”
This wasn’t one of Biden’s low-stakes gaffes, in other words.
That individual on Biden’s task force whose job is “to do nothing but deal with equity,” by the way, is Dr. Cameron Webb. In February, talking to The Washington Post about dealing with vaccine hesitancy in the black community, he said the administration was “swimming upstream.”
“The best antidote, said Webb,” The Post reported, “is communication from trusted figures.”
“We’re not trying to sell anybody a vaccine, but I believe that if people have accurate, truthful information about what we know and what we don’t know, they’ll make the decision that’s in their best interest,” Webb said. “There are a lot of myths and disinformation out there that clouds that picture, so part of our work is helping to sift through all that.”
Far be it from me to give Dr. Webb advice on ending vaccine hesitancy, but if “communication from trusted figures” is key and you don’t want anyone “cloud[ing] that picture” with the black community, it’s high time to have a talk with the boss.
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