Stop Saying Black People 'Distrust' Scientists. You're Blaming the Victim | Opinion

Lining up in New York's Javits Center on a chilly Thursday morning to receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I was nervous and excited. The last time I'd visited the space was for Comic Con two years ago. The spaces that once held massive booths for DC and Marvel Comics were now filled with hundreds of New Yorkers pouring in to get vaccinated. And I couldn't help but notice that most of those in line were white—in a city that is majority people of color.

I saw members of the National Guard stationed through the space. The sight of so many Caucasians in uniform usually worries me and signals trouble. But seeing the service members helping us get a shot at a post-pandemic life was comforting.

More disconcerting was the absence of people who look like me.

Sadly, my experience isn't unique. Black Americans are getting vaccinated at a rate much lower than white Americans.

Some have claimed that this disparity is due to Black people's unwillingness to get the vaccine, pointing to a long history of abuse which has fostered distrust among Black Americans for the medical community.

But this explanation is partial at best. Consider the fact that 61 percent of Black Americans plan to get the vaccine, according to the Pew Research Center. It makes sense: People of color have been hardest hit by the pandemic. According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, Black people nationwide have died at 1.4 times the rate of whites. African Americans are also more likely to have "essential jobs" that require them to be in daily contact with large numbers of people.

But blaming Black distrust for the low rates of vaccinations is not only a partial and misleading explanation; it's also dangerous. For it places the blame on the victims, and erases the systemic barriers that make access to health care more difficult for Black Americans. And it furthers the stereotype of African Americans as being unwilling to do what is necessary to protect ourselves.

This is all very personal for me. When I read the text message in February from my youngest sister DeShauna in Houston telling me that she had COVID-19, I was petrified. She was the first in our family to test positive. I feared that I was about to become one of the one third of black Americans who know someone who has died of COVID-19. I nervously called and texted daily to see how she was.

Why Aren't Black Americans Getting Vaccinated?
Larry Green (R) receives a Band-Aid from registered nurse Teresa Frey after he received his second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church UCC on March 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

It was the most frightened I'd been since the start of the pandemic, though there were many high-profile cases throughout the last year; the coronavirus has killed musician Charlie Pride, politician Herman Cain, and Susan Moore, a doctor in Indianapolis who said in a Facebook video that she was denied proper medical care because of her race.

Of course, it's true that there is a level of skepticism among my people concerning health care, and with good reason. Racism has historically permeated the medical profession. We have been viewed as opportunities for experimentation instead of people needing treatment and care. This has included the myth that Black people's nerve endings are less sensitive to pain than white people's. Black women are also three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. And of course there was the infamous 40-year-long "Tuskegee Study" in which Black men were told that they suffered from "bad blood" and were denied treatment for syphilis.

Thanks to this legacy, communities of color are exposed to their fair share of vaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation spreading across social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

The claims that we are being used as guinea pigs in medical tests have just enough truth to seem credible, even when they are vicious lies.

And yet, despite facing a medical establishment that has a history of devaluing Black lives and promoting the lies of anti-vaxxers, the overwhelming number of African American people want the vaccine. Another recent poll, from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College, found that a scant 25 percent of Black people did not want to get the vaccine.

The problem is not our willingness; it's access.

People of color are less likely than whites to have the internet access needed to book appointments online. We often have jobs with inflexible schedules that make it harder to take available slots, especially those during work hours. Some of us don't have reliable transportation to reach sites that are often located in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, white people are engaging in vaccination gentrification by scooping up appointments in Black neighborhoods. This makes it harder for people who live there to get them. Instead of ensuring that vaccines are getting to the communities that are most harmed, we've witnessed an "every person for themselves" zero sum game that benefits those with the most resources.

In other words, as usual, racism has proven to be the deadliest disease. It has sown skepticism of the health system and continues to fuel inequities that make it harder for people of color to get the vaccines we need.

We are in a race against time to vaccinate as many people as possible before COVID variants spread and make the problem worse. The job of the Biden-Harris administration and local governments is clear: They must work to earn the trust of Black Americans by uprooting racial disparities in medicine and by ensuring that we have fair access to the Covid vaccines.

Michael Crawford is a New York-based activist who writes about race, identity and culture. Follow him on Twitter @dmcrawford.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.