Friday, May 14, 2021

52 years later: Separate and unequal, still

President Lyndon Johnson, center, organized the Kerner Commission in 1968. It concluded that America contained two societies, one White, one Black, separate and unequal.

Two friends, both Black, informed me that they will not be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (Full disclosure: I did share my book with both.) I was angry and then sad, not just that I couldn't persuade them but how deep seated their animosity was toward getting vaccinated.

After a day I've realized there's no use in continuing a conversation. They've made up their minds and their decisions and the reasons for them are far beyond a book about a vaccine.

Their decisions brought me back to when I studied the Kerner Commission, which was created by President Johnson following inner-city protests in 1967 in Newark, New Jersey, Detroit and more than 25 other cities across America. The Kerner Commission's findings were stunning and went where no other such panel had gone before, using social science research that had been ignored.

The commission concluded, 52 years ago, that America was split into two societies, one Black, one White, separate and unequal, and steadily moving apart. Johnson's appointees got it right. For the first time an official panel looked at factors such as the police, institutional racism, and lack of opportunity among black Americans. 

But nothing has substantially changed.

So when one of my black friends said that she did not trust "white medicine," there really was nothing for me to say. All I had to think about was that Black woman doctor who documented by video her treatment as she lay in a hospital bed fighting COVID-19. She was ignored, her pain was denied, and her treatments were delayed. And she knew the protocols and how she was being denied them. Shortly after her last video, this doctor died.

So my optimism in the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 that are saving lives and will end this pandemic is tamped down today by the realization that this society is deeply divided and that African-Americans feel woefully unequal and distrustful of a system they view as other.

But I'm grateful to my friends for at least reading my book. Perhaps progress will come, just at glacial speed. I did not know how badly they feel.

Now I do.

Learn more about the vaccine, about Covid-19 and about public health in this new book:

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