Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 28/29: How Racism Breeds Medical Skepticism


Before we forget, here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s a link to subscribe to our Patreon, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, here’s a fund tracker that breaks down how we spend our money, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone forwarded them to you. 

Hi friends,

We didn’t mean to take last week off but sometimes life just gets away from ya! Ellie’s home with family for the month which can be its own kind of busy and Emily had exams (anyone want to talk about the collateral consequences of encounters with the criminal punishment system? That’s the only thing left in her brain). Nevertheless, we’re back. 

First of all, Happy Hanukkah to our readers that are celebrating. For those that don’t celebrate, tonight (Tuesday) is the sixth night of the eight-night holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in the 2nd Century, where the oil necessary to light the lamps used to retake the Temple was expected to only last one day and instead lasted eight nights. To learn more about Hanukkah, we recommend this listen from On the Media from last year’s holiday season.  


We’ve seen a lot of buzz around the COVID vaccine the past few weeks and we are *excited* that there is an end to isolation on the horizon. We know that not everyone is at peace with the idea of getting vaccinated in six months or so, and it’s not really our place to speak on that (though we *personally* are pretty stoked that both Moderna and Phizer/BioNTech’s vaccines were built off prior trials from the SARS outbreak years ago, the clinical trials included tens of thousands of participants from diverse backgrounds, we’ll have a massive sample size of non-clinical trial candidates who have already gotten vaccinated in other countries, and that there are so many amazing medical professionals, who understand mRNA vaccinations and immune response better than either of us ever will, who are heralding this vaccine and its effectiveness. Oops okay at risk of isolating anyone who’s not there yet. We weren’t there yet until this past week!! This is a shame-free zone. We’ll move on now). 

Instead, today we want to speak on what you have invited us into your lives to talk about: racism, and how it relates to the vaccine itself, as well as skepticism of health care as a whole. 


As we’ve shared in many previous newsletters, COVID-19 has had racially stratified outcomes, particularly toward Black and Indigenous communities. If you’ve been reading this newsletter over the past seven months, you will find it unsurprising that once again, people of color are at heightened risk of both contracting COVID-19 and dying from it or attaining a long-term disability as a result of it, and of losing their homes, jobs, or other indicators of financial stability as a result of the pandemic. When you have built every system in a nation with inequity at its very core, it is devastatingly unsurprising that, in crisis, those systems continue to play out at the expense of people who are already marginalized.

Thus, understandably, according to November 2020 polls, only 55% of Black Americans said they would take a vaccine if it was proven safe and effected by officials. Similarly, a September survey of Black and Latinx respondents published by the COVID Collaborative, the NAACP, and UnidosUS found that, while 55 percent of Black respondents knew someone who had been diagnosed with Covid-19, just 14 percent said that they believed that a future vaccine would be safe, and only 18 percent believed that the vaccine would be effective. There’s an old adage that says, “when white people catch a cold, Black people catch pneumonia.” 

Clearly, saying there is room for improvement in the relationship between medical professionals and the Black community (and other communities of color) is the understatement of the year.  This improvement would have to begin with a collective understanding of the history of Black people and medical professionals; this history starts with enslaved men and women being subjected to surgeries without anesthesia in the name of medical advancement. White enslavers like James Marion Sims (who, to this day, is broadly celebrated as the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” and up until this year of our lord 2020 had a womens’ dorm named after him at Emily’s current educational institution. Gross.) operated on enslaved Black women unable to oppose treatment. This is followed by cases like that of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who went to a segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital for cancer treatment in 1951 only to have her cells taken and used in medical research without her consent for decades after her death.

Perhaps the most notably heinous event was the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, which began in the 1930s and continued for over 40 years, until its public revelation in 1972. The study, which was conducted in Alabama with the approval of the U.S. government, tracked 600 Black men—399 living with syphilis and 201 without the disease — but did not offer any treatment. Instead, the study observed the men for decades as they struggled with health complications related to the disease, infected others, and died. The study did irreparable damage to the men and to their loved ones: according to research published in 2016, it scarred a generation, with the life expectancy amongst Black men over 45 falling in the years immediately following the revelation of the experiment, due to lack of trust in the medical system. 

And this doesn’t even account for the current maternal mortality rates of Black women as compared to the population as a whole, the complete lack of research attention to diseases like sickle-cell anemia that predominantly affect Black people, the way racist beliefs that Black patients don’t experience pain in the same way as white patients affects their treatment by medical professionals, or the total lack of representation of Black doctors and doctors of color across the medical field. Combine this with the negative interpersonal interactions that Black patients report upon needing medical care. The hesitancy to let the medical community have access to your body is so, so justified.

If our grandparents bore witness to a neighbor or friend who was treated as a science experiment, if our parent was subjected to humiliation or denied pain medicine because of racist beliefs about drug use or their nervous system, if we had an illness that was under-researched because white folks don’t get it, we would be wary of this vaccine, too. For a little more context, we recommend this tweet thread by Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh, MD about her experience as a participant in a clinical trial so as to make sure Black people were represented.


Everything mentioned above is (part of the reason) why Kissemekia Corbett’s role in the Moderna vaccine has been so powerful.

Out of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s own mouth: 

“The very vaccine that’s one of the two that has absolutely exquisite levels 94 to 95% efficacy against clinical disease and almost 100% efficacy against serious disease that are shown to be clearly safethat vaccine was actually developed in my institute’s vaccine research center by a team of scientists led by Dr. Barney Graham and his close colleague, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, or Kizzy Corbett. Kizzy is an African American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”

Corbett is a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health who has been on the front lines of the global race for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine; she will go down in history as one of the key players in developing the science that could end the pandemic. She has been a force to be reckoned with since her early studies but particularly so the past six years as a postdoctoral fellow on coronavirus vaccine research at NIH. 

Corbett said that she felt her participation in the vaccine’s development has been critical to establishing credibility for the vaccine itself: 

“I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure so to speak. I felt that it was important to do that because the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of color who have often worked behind the scenes and essentially [who have] done the dirty work for these large efforts toward a vaccine.”

“This person who looks like you has been working on this for several years and I also wanted it to be visible because I wanted people to understand that I stood by the work that I’d done for so long as well.”

It is also worth noting that the very first vaccine administered outside of the clinical trials was administered to Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse from Queens, by Dr. Michelle Chester, a doctor from NYC. The first dose in the nation, given by a Black woman in medicine, to a Black woman in medicine.

This week we ask that despite all the good news about vaccines on the horizon, we continue to pay close attention to the way we go about our lives with care and concern for others (read: keep wearing your masks, keep distancing, remember that you are not the exception to the science behind the pandemic’s spread). Cause for celebration does not mean we are home free and it certainly doesn’t mean that our actions don’t impact others. We don’t know when we will get inoculated and until that happens, the nation continues to surge with cases. Please be conscientious this holiday season. 


This week, we are asking our readers to call or write to the Federal Government that is set to execute two more people in January before Trump leaves office. The Trump administration is the first lame duck administration in 130 years, killing Brandon Bernard last Thursday. In Friday’s upcoming email, we’ll share our reasons we believe in abolishing the death penalty, but if you are looking for a way to do small, big advocacy work this week, please commit 10-15 minutes this week to call or write the Justice Department on behalf of Lisa Montgomery, a woman who suffered a lifetime of abuse, and Corey Johnson, an intellectually disabled man.

Write to:

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Call: 202-353-1555 and leave a comment on their Comments line.

Calling your representatives is uncomfortable AND it is helpful. Here is a quote from one of our readers (hi Rachel!!), who has worked in the offices where these calls are answered, so Emily kind of defers to her as the local expert on making calls to your reps. (thanks Rachel!!!)

If you’re new around here and you don’t remember our friend Rachel’s spiel about calls, here it is again:  

“Peoples calls are so so so important. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. It is a numbers game. Interns literally input issues into a spreadsheet by county and give it representatives to make decisions. People think it doesn’t make a difference but it 100 percent does. I say this from experience as someone who was once an intern typing into a spreadsheet!!!! Thank youu for coming to my ted talk.”


This holiday season, we recommend buying gifts off of TranSanta’s registries for Trans youth who may otherwise not get to celebrate. TranSanta features the letters to Santa written by transgender youth who expresss their need of everything from a new toothbrush to new clothes to makeup or gaming systems. You can choose who and how to support by clicking a letter and then choosing the items you’d like to give through this website

To learn more about TranSanta and the way they’re providing holiday joy, scroll their instagram @transanta or read this interview with Pose star and TranSanta founder, Indya Moore. 


  • This interview between Josie Duffy Rice and Mariame Kaba –  It’s good to talk about what accountability is and isn’t because that also has a lot to do with where we are as a society. There’s an assumption that being anti-punishment means that you’re not pro-accountability; that couldn’t be further from the truth… Accountability is an active process through which people have to make a decision that they recognize the harms that are occurring, they want to try to redress them, and they’re thinking about the harms through the lens of what’s been done to others but also what’s been done to them. That’s really challenging because everything in our culture is about coercion; dangling the idea of punishment is meant to keep you on the “right path.” Within the culture we have, there’s very little incentive to take accountability for anything.”
  • This book review of William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen’s new book, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,”—“We recognize that a lot of the thoughts, ideas and values that we held were formed with imperfect information. And once you know your history, once you see what is happening to Black Americans every day, it’s hard to unsee it. The quest for reparations has a lot of challenges, but there’s also a tremendous amount of promise, and many Americans want to be a part of that. That’s what’s behind my encouragement, seeing how many people want to be a part of radical change.”
  • Season Four of Scene on Radio that features one of our heroes (and former professors) Chenjerai Kumanyika and gives a fullllllll overview of US History like you’ve probably never heard before
  • And for many, many laughs, Emily just finished Sam Irby’s Wow, No Thank You! And literally laughed out loud at least three times during every chapter. Cannot recommend strongly enough (if you are okay with heavy use of expletives and occasionally graphic explanations of bodily functions while describing life with a chronic illness). 

Alright friends, we’ll see you Friday with more of our favorite reads of the week and some information about the death penalty. Until then, we’ll be drafting what 2021’s Unlearning Racism resources will look like: please continue to send any suggestions/questions/topics you want to learn more about (and please continue to share your favorite songs from 2020: the vibe is “hope is a discipline”). 

Continue to wear your mask, zoom your loved ones, and stay safe, healthy and hydrated.

In solidarity,

Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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