Since 2020, there’s never been more awareness of the importance of immunizations. More than ever before, Black doctors were on the front lines of scientific research regarding immunizations against the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett introduced a relatable understanding of vaccinations, and though many were proud of her efforts, there was a significant portion of the community that was decidedly “anti-jab.” “Anti-vaxxers,” as they came to be called on social media platforms, took to the internet asserting that the COVID-19 vaccination was everything from an under-researched science experiment, to a purposeful concoction derived from an evil plot to mutate the human population. But what is behind the mistrust? Why is vaccine hesitancy among African Americans so great now?
The historical research on the psychology of anti-vaccination views is vast. Recently, the anti-vax position is a meeting point between two highly unlikely bedfellows: radical white conservatives and allegedly racially conscious Black Americans. How did these two diametrically opposed camps suddenly stand shoulder-to-shoulder on an issue? Though for different reasons, both agree on one key point: there is reason to distrust the American government. The American healthcare system has been wrought with problematic interactions with the Black community since Africans first arrived in the Americas. But this particular mistrust was, has, and is costing Black lives.
When the pandemic began, there was a myth in the Black community that COVID-19 was a disease that, finally, impacted people of European descent more than people of African descent. However, many knew that there was truth to the old adage, “When White folks get a cold, Black folks get the flu.” Knowing that the persistent health and environmental disparities would put Black people at a disadvantage, Black doctors reasoned correctly that Black people would die from COVID-19 at a higher rate. Even with this hypothesis being proven and Black COVID-related death on the rise, vaccine hesitancy continued. It seemed ludicrous to some that vaccines could be developed that quickly. The truth is the human coronavirus has been studied for decades. Another truth is that technology and science move at a faster pace these days, so the development of a preventive strategy was in greater reach. However the truth that America has had a very shady relationship with Black healthcare also pervaded. Though what happened to Henrietta Lacks and the Black men in Tuskegee had nothing to do with vaccines, they are symbols of systemic racism in the American healthcare system, and justifications for distrust.
Last fall, I studied the differences between white and Black college students regarding adherence to COVID-19 campus policies and the overall institutional policy differences at Historically Black Colleges and Universities versus Primarily White Institutions. I found HBCUs to be more rigorous in terms of vaccine mandates and Black students at HBCUs were more adherent to vaccine policies, even more than Black students at PWIs. This may indicate that, for African Americans, the suggestion of vaccination isn’t the motivating or mitigating factor; it is who is making the suggestion. Having Black faces at the forefront of vaccine research and information dissemination likely moved the needle for far more Black Americans than it would have without them. But more were needed.
Let’s not forget that Civil Rights 2.0 and COVID-19 occurred simultaneously. Classical conditioning is a psychological concept that suggests that when two unrelated stimuli are presented together, they become linked in the mind of the observer. It’s why Pavlov’s dog salivated to the sound of the bell even when food wasn’t present. For many, the same government that viewed Black lives as expendable at the hands of police and vigilante white citizens was now providing guidance on how to allegedly save Black lives via a vaccine. Classical conditioning operated widely, as bits of misinformation resulted in ubiquitous illusory correlations.
Social media posts about how people allegedly “died after the jab” and no statistics about how many people are alive because of it, celebrities circulating myths regarding the vaccine, and a lack of overall Black representation in the medical professions, all contributed to continued anti-vax views. It is critical to note in this analysis that Black people don’t hate science, but Black people are more likely to look to their own chosen leaders for guidance in these situations, and Black people remember systemic mistreatment. Black people remember how racism has previously guided medical interventions and they remain suspicious. To truly address the nature of Black anti-vax views, we have to consider their cultural context and how to blend healthy skepticism with scientific truths.