During February, Black History Month, we celebrate the great African-American political and civil rights leaders, scientists, artists, poets, movie stars and athletes. But we must also pause to recall America’s dark past, stained by horrific acts against Black and brown people, at times perpetrated by our own government.
As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, it’s critical that we look back at the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” to understand the distrust that many African-Americans feel toward our government and medical institutions. That distrust may be a contributing factor in the significantly higher Covid-19 infection rate and death toll seen among Black and brown people.
The Tuskegee study was supposed to last six months. It carried on for 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, a collaboration between the U.S. Public Health Service and Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black college in Alabama. The study of 600 poor Black sharecroppers examined 399 with syphilis and 201 without the disease. Study participants were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a colloquialism for syphilis, anemia and fatigue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In truth, they weren’t being treated at all — even after 1945, when penicillin was accepted as “the treatment of choice for syphilis.”
In fact, the study looked at what would happen if syphilis were to go untreated — but the participants never knew that. It wasn’t until 1972, when an Associated Press story disclosed the study, that it ended.
Is it any wonder that many African-Americans might distrust the continual exhortations of our federal, state and local governments to be inoculated against the coronavirus as soon as they can?
According to the CDC, nationally, there have been 1.4 times more Covid-19 cases among African-Americans than white people over the past 11 months. The hospitalization rate is 3.7 times greater among Black and brown people. And the death rate is 2.8 times greater.
There are reasons for these dispiriting statistics beyond distrust of government and the medical system — systemic racism is chief among them, the CDC says. Lack of access to health care is another, and occupation is another: Many people of color work in the service industry, requiring them to show up in person rather than work from home via Zoom and email. Finally, there’s the question of housing. Many Black and brown people live in tighter quarters, in more densely populated areas, than white people. The coronavirus requires density to spread widely.
In 2019, the Herald undertook a year-long investigative series examining the many forms that systemic racism takes in Nassau County. We called it “The Racism Around Us.” Infant mortality is a leading indicator of a community’s well-being, according to the county Department of Health. When children are dying in high numbers at birth, there are probably myriad other health concerns in a community.
In the majority of white communities across Nassau, the infant mortality rate ranged from 0 to 3 in 1,000 births in 2014-16, according to the New York State Department of Health. In most communities of color, the infant mortality rate was three to nine times that.
County officials identified nine communities of color as well as those with large minority populations — Elmont, Freeport, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Inwood, Long Beach, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury — each with measurably greater health concerns than nearby white communities. They have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, mirroring national statistics for infection and death rates.
“Blacks are bearing a disproportionate burden of Covid-19 in Nassau County,” said Elaine Gross, president of the Syosset-based ERASE Racism, “and the county must address two related challenges. First, it must increase health care access and Covid-19 testing in Black communities. Second, it must combat the structural racism that fuels the disparities.”
Sarika Kuman, Long Island regional organizer for the National Institute of Reproductive Health, put it this way: “One’s quality of life should not be determined by your zip code, but in Nassau County it is. From infant mortality to pandemic fatality rates, the common thread is Long Island’s structural inequities.”
During Black History Month, we must never forget the racial injustices of our collective past so they are never repeated again, and so we might commit to rooting out the daily injustices — large and small — in our present society.