Diagnosis Negative: Black People’s Distrust of the U.S. Medical System Explained

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Announcement of the Covid-19 vaccine birthed multiple end-of-days conspiracies online. Like the one that claimed a syringe shot contains microchip locators marked by Thanos because he doesn’t understand Find My iPhone. Jokes aside, Black people’s distrust of government involvement in medicine and science goes far beyond the average anti-vaccine social media rant.

Case and point: Physician J. Marion Simms (1813 –1883). Often called “The Father of Modern Gynecology”, his innovations in tools and surgical techniques for women’s reproductive health were at the expense of Black women’s bodies. His research focused on enslaved Black women without anesthesia—caring less than a teardrop for moral or medical ethics. Simms was a pioneer in the “Black people don’t feel pain” theory.

 That same theory existed in the white medical minds behind the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932–1972). The study’s purpose was to observe untreated syphilis history among Black men who were told by the federal government that they were receiving treatment. A good ol’ fashioned American lie. These historical, intentional malpractices strengthened white entitlement over Black bodies and broadened the divide between Black people’s trust and the medical/science field.

Henrietta Lacks’s story (1920 –1951) is yet another example. A Black woman who had cervical cancer is credited for being the first immortalized human cell line in medical research. But doctors used Lacks’s cells without consent while publicly and consistently using her name in medical documents, unbeknownst to the family who discovered this years after her death.

The same disregard for Black women’s consent is chronicled in a Netflix documentary about the1980s crack epidemic called Crack. In this case, it was the Medical University of South Carolina and a white nurse named Shirley Brown (at the 56:10 mark). Brown convinced pregnant Black women to admit their drug use. Instead of providing help for their addictions, she took it a step further by secretly giving their information to local law enforcement who would arrest those same Black women while still pregnant or shortly after giving birth.

America’s historically documented white medical advancement at the expense of Black life contributes to Black distrust towards government-sponsored science and medicine. Despite decades of Coronavirus research, the U.S. government’s urgency to distribute a vaccine appears to be motivated not by the desire to improve health outcomes for Black people (who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19) but to continue gaining wealth from the labor of the Black essential worker.

Black folks’ doubts of medicine and science are not solely the influence of YouTube theories that suggest vaccines transform people into robots that God sends to Hell. Black people’s skepticism comes from real-life trauma and generations of experience as victims of a perverse, white fascination disguised as research. 

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