On the West Side last month, I stood listening to a group of pastors and politicians demand that the federal government prioritize Black and Brown communities during the process of administering the COVID-19 vaccine.
The demand is reasonable. Black and Brown people have been disproportionately harmed by this virus, so it’s only fair that we be among the first in line to get protected from it.
At the same time, though, the preachers admitted that Black and Brown people have been conspicuously missing from the vaccine’s clinical trials — not the sort of information that will endear us to an unfamiliar vaccine.
On Monday, I saw a tweet from prominent New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah Jones (one of the brains behind the Times’ “1619 Project”): “First Covid vaccine administered in NYC, broadcast on live TV, to a Black woman healthcare worker by a Black woman healthcare worker.”
And I learned on Tuesday that Loretto Hospital, the safety net hospital in Austin, would administer Illinois’ very first COVID-19 vaccine.
Those are instances of what I call cosmetic equity. The reality looks like something else.
For instance, Dr. Lois Clarke, Loretto’s director of clinical research, said last week that Blacks and Hispanics account for half of the country’s COVID-19 cases, but only 15 percent of participants in early vaccine trials were non-white.
With talk of the COVID-19 vaccine coming aboard, I began to poll close relatives and friends. If given the chance, would they take the COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow? To a person … “No.”
But Obama said he would take it (if Dr. Fauci signed off on it), I pointed out once, before immediately regretting even bringing the point up in that instance, my memories racing to Obama in Flint.
In May 2016, the first Black president traveled to the predominantly Black Michigan city and sipped a glass of filtered water on camera, no doubt to project confidence and to assure “angry residents that their children would be fine in the long term despite the ‘complete screw-up’ that contaminated their drinking water with lead,” according to a Reuters report.
Filmmaker Michael Moore, who predicted the presidency of Donald Trump, said Obama “is just trying to reassure people that everything’s okay. To drink from a glass of Flint water when a number of experts are still saying this water’s not safe? It’s still going through the same corroded lead pipes? It was such a disappointing thing to see.”
I should note that Obama also confronted a “crisis of confidence” in the financial markets during his first year in office and the solution his team crafted was not simply to “project confidence,” but to pump trillions into the very banks that created the crisis in the first place. Flint got a show, but Wall Street got substantial support.
There were other reasons the vaccine wasn’t polling well in my unscientific analysis. One of my “respondents,” my best friend, reminded me of the Tuskegee experiment, when the federal government basically gave a group of poor Black sharecroppers in Alabama untreated syphilis and watched as many of them suffered for 40 years.
The government persuaded the sharecroppers to participate by telling them that the study would last less than a year and that they were receiving free health care.
“Selected participants [in the initial COVID-19 vaccine tests] will receive free healthcare for up to two years, regardless of insurance status,” announced Loretto officials last week.
Again, the mistrust is not unfounded.
Let me emphasize that I’m not trying to sow even more mistrust about the vaccine among Blacks. The mistrust already exists and it’s only been exacerbated in recent years by apparent governmental impotence in the face of systemic racism and inequity.
It’s one thing for Donald Trump to play games with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or to try selling the public a bleach cure. Most Black people know Trump for the con he is, which is why we pushed Joe Biden into the White House, despite Biden’s apparent flaws.
As a collective, the Black vote, despite the Candace Owens shtick about the ‘Democratic Plantation,’ might be the most pragmatic voting bloc out there.
But it’s another thing, when the politicians we pragmatically place our votes behind end up presiding over business as usual.
This headline from the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times is a case in point: “Promises of Diversity In Illinois’ Legal Weed Biz An ‘Epic Failure’.”
One year after the state legalized recreational marijuana, dispensaries in Illinois “have sold $580 million of recreational marijuana over the first 11 months of the year,” the Sun-Times reports.
And yet, the Sun-Times added, “there’s not a single licensed marijuana business that counts a person of color as a majority owner” — despite Gov. J.B. Pritzker calling the state’s weed industry “the most equity-centric in the nation, ”according to the Chicago Tribune.
That’s like bragging about being the most ethical staffer in the Trump White House.
We live in an age of extreme mistrust and the current power elite is not up to the challenge of effectively confronting the sentiment.
Instead of experts and managers and the wealthy guiding us through multifold crises, maybe they need to figure out ways of democratizing the knowledge, wealth, resources and connections that they’ve hoarded.
A vaccine won’t inoculate us against the viral diseases of racism and inequality — only a radical redistribution of wealth and power, and a radical rethinking of values, will do that.