In honor of Black History Month, the Africana studies department sought to draw attention to racial disparity in the United States health care system, an issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, Titilayo Okoror, an associate professor and chair of the Africana studies department, moderated a discussion titled “Blacks and COVID-19 Vaccines: Harnessing the Power of Resilience Against Legacy of Medical Racism.” Held over Zoom, the webinar was composed of a panel of academics from around the United States who shared their experiences and advice in discussing the COVID-19 vaccine within the African American community, as well as the history of structural racism in medicine.

First to speak on the panel was Vivian L. Carter, chair of the department of psychology and sociology at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama. Carter began by clarifying the history of Tuskegee University, which is infamously remembered by many as the site at which the U.S. government conducted an unethical study observing untreated syphilis in Black men who were told they were receiving free health care from the federal government.

“People keep thinking that somehow when the [U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps] came, they just fell out of the air,” Carter said. “They didn’t. They came because they knew this was a qualified health facility that was basically geared toward treating Black people. Because Black people couldn’t be treated [elsewhere], the white people wouldn’t even touch them.”

As Carter discussed the historical beginnings of Tuskegee University, notably founded by Booker T. Washington, she drew attention to current sentiments expressed by African Americans regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, touching upon the issue of trust.

“People are very skeptical about this information, who’s delivering this information [and] where it’s coming from,” Carter said. “‘If it’s coming from the government, I don’t trust the government.’ One lady told me, ‘I don’t trust what that [Anthony] Fauci man says, but Dr. Carter, I trust you.’”

To make advancements, Carter said establishing a connection between trusted medical professionals and community members is key, making sure to pay attention to the manner of speaking used.

“You’ve got to give it to people in layman’s terms,” Carter said. “We cannot sit back and be so scientific about what we’re explaining or who we’re talking to, the community.”

Next on the panel was Rosaire Ifedi, associate professor of education at Ashland University, in Ohio, who sought to use her experience as an educator to promote community engagement and involvement.

According to Ifedi, the concept of maintaining a diverse sense of voice remains important in combating issues in racial disparity, especially in an atmosphere Ifedi described as “almost always white.” Ifedi discussed her experience chairing the New African Immigrants Commission, a group that advocates to address the needs of Ohio’s sub-Saharan African population.

“We did listening events throughout the state — in Columbus, in Cincinnati, out to Cleveland, the major cities in Ohio — and we got to hear from people,” Ifedi said. “We got to hear from the major people in the community, and this is so important, as it laid the groundwork for what was to come.”

According to Ifedi, the sense of community that she and her commission established in Ohio was instrumental to assisting African-American groups as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, addressing needs by distributing COVID-19-related information in the native languages of immigrant groups.

“So far people are being so much more trusting in the process because of all the other things that have happened prior to getting to this stage,” Ifedi said. “We cannot overemphasize the importance of trusted voices.”

The next panelist was Sharon Morrison, associate professor of public health education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Morrison highlighted her local experiences in Greensboro, emphasizing the contributions of Black immigrants to the American workforce and drawing attention to the lack of return they are witnessing.

“If you look at this demographic, it is a wonder that the contributions in terms of what they get back, there is a disparity,” Morrison said. “In thinking about our own COVID-19 outreach and the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine uptake, we are continuing to see some of these disparities.”

Last on the panel was Kim Gallon, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University. Gallon echoed the points made by the other panelists but drew an important distinction of the term used to describe the lack of trust in the COVID-19 vaccine in the Black community.

“What you’ve beautifully outlined is something that rather than ‘vaccine hesitancy,’ I would say ‘vaccine strategic-thinking’ that’s coming out of the Black community,” Gallon said.

According to Gallon, it is important to acknowledge that many of the reasons behind distrust of the government among members of the Black community are valid and that an approach needs to be taken that acknowledges their concerns.

Maya Lord-Dagostino, a senior double-majoring in Africana studies and human development, attended the event and expressed her support for the positions upheld by the panelists.

“Ultimately, the voice of Black individuals is the only one valid in speaking about these topics because first-hand experiences can never compare to a proposed analysis,” Lord-Dagostino wrote in an email. “Listening to and uplifting Black communities and Black voices is key in understanding the relationship between Black communities and COVID-19 because their narratives are the truth behind the racialized pandemic.”