Black Anti-vaxxers and “Medical Apartheid”

Joe Mcfatter
5 min readMar 8, 2021

I borrow the term, “medical apartheid,” from a book bearing that as its title, published in 2006, written by Harriet A. Washington, an esteemed researcher and writer in the field of medical ethics. The book’s subtitle is, “The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.” As a white man in my eighth decade on this good Earth, having lived with and among black people for over 50 years, I thought I knew quite a lot about how Blacks have been abused by “Western” medicine. Anyone having some knowledge of the subject, if asked to cite an example of such abuse, would no doubt blurt out, “the Tuskegee experiment.” For the reader unfamiliar with that sordidly cruel “experiment,” a recap: some 600 poor black men in Alabama were “enrolled” in a study beginning in 1932 that would not be terminated until 1972. The study involved 400 men known to have syphilis, and 200 who did not. Over forty years the group was monitored, given false “blood treatment,” and when in the late ‘40’s when penicillin became known to treat the disease, the drug was withheld from the group’s treatment. The whole purpose of the “study” was to document the full effects of the disease, a gruesome trick played upon these men. Of course many suffered horribly and many perished directly from the disease and related causes. Sadly, the disease was passed on to a number of women and their children.

The Tuskegee travesty is known to probably to just about every black person over the age of 18 today. However, the story is only a tiny tip of the historical iceberg of “medical” atrocities committed by the white/European medical establishment upon Blacks, here in America, but moreover across the African continent since colonial times. Harriet Washington’s book provides an encyclopedic accounting of this history. Given this history it is small wonder that the majority of Blacks, particularly in the United States, are hesitant when it comes to the present subject of whether or not to receive the COVID vaccination. However, a major distinction must be drawn between the Tuskegee atrocity and getting vaccinated today: men and women suffered and died because they did NOT get treated with penicillin. This would be like NOT getting vaccinated today!

So black people, as I heard someone say recently, have a “righteous right” to be stand-offish about the new vaccines. I respect their right to be hesitant, and even to be firm in not taking the shots. I understand their feelings, and the “their” includes several of my extended black family who I cherish and love dearly. As I write this I am in the two week period waiting until my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Over my life I have had most, if not all of the vaccinations that have been created, and vividly remember as a small boy standing in line on the main street of my little Texas town, waiting for a sugar cube with polio vaccine on it. I, as a white person, have undoubtedly benefited from “studies” conducted on black participants without their consent or knowledge. Fortunately also, I can say I have never had a bad reaction to any vaccine. Contrarily, most of my extended black family have not had any vaccinations at all, for reasons of distrust. The mothers of the younger ones who are all adults now, were able to get their children exempted from vaccinations throughout their school years. Now that they are free to think and do for themselves, a few have chosen to consider getting vaccinated, while some have not or are undecided. I say again, I respect their decisions, yet hoping they have seriously looked at the data.

Obviously I am not an “anti-vaxxer.” It would be hard to be, given I have never personally suffered from any vaccination, nor do I know anyone who has. Yes, I am well aware of the “anti-vaxxer” argument, ranging from the sentiment of Blacks who have little to no trust in the medical establishment, to whites and others who cling to falsities and untruths about vaccinations going back to the late 1800’s smallpox vaccinations. Then there is the rather popularized falsehood of the MMR vaccine contributing to a rise in autism among children. That story, fraudulent as it was, planted a seed of distrust and continues one of “those stories” promulgated by anti-vaxxers today. Unfortunately this story and other spurious ones filtering through social media, about people getting ill or dying from vaccines, including COVID vaccines — such as a black nurse who allegedly came down with Bell’s palsy of her face after getting her shot earlier this year, a story that could not stand up to fact-checking- continue to feed into the mill of distrust and doubt.

I began this article by speaking of “medical apartheid.” Frankly, the falsehoods and lies about vaccinations spun by hard-core anti-vaxxers, a number having made financial fortunes from commercializing the movement, must be viewed as the underbelly of modern medical apartheid. To the extent that the untruths or half-truths spouted by this movement play upon already existing cognitive biases of the people hearing or reading such stories, further eroding their trust in science, thus exposing them to potential harm from COVID or other diseases, medical apartheid continues.

People of all colors should consider also that in these days and times of social media weaponizing, foreign agents can and likely are using “anti-vaxxer” media to agitate political divisions. Bad stories about vaccinations are being pushed by various “conspiracy theorists,” and I have seen evidence of these first-hand that appear to target the skepticism and fears of Blacks. Sewing discord and fear via social media and media-at-large is a growing aspect of soft warfare. Since people can suffer and die from such stories, the results are really not “soft.” Unfortunately we see prominent religious, political and other figures who have a soap box, promoting such noise; but contrarily, thank God we see righteous and knowledgeable people, including in the black community, standing up against this real “fake news.”

Yes, there have been many instances where someone taking a vaccination or a drug has had bad effects or even death resulting, but the facts are that this number is a teeny-tiny fraction of how many would suffer or die without the vaccination. The history of COVID so far has demonstrated that people of color suffer at a very high disproportionate rate compared to whites. There are many reasons for this, but one can easily connect the dots to systemic racism. Therefore, for Blacks at large the choice should be an easy one — take the vaccine- were it not for centuries of medical apartheid. When we look closely at the risks of so many other things in our lives, like being injured or killed in a car wreck-especially while using our cell phones- we see life is full of normal activities that are much more riskier than a vaccination. Living our lives means taking risks. Living and risking not living go hand in glove.

In closing, I repeat that I respect my extended black family members who so far have chosen to not get the vaccine for COVID. I love them regardless.