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Medical Racism, Anti-Vax Sentiment and The Other Virus

On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle is on vacation and Toure is joined by friend of the show Dr. Christina Greer, head of the political science department at Fordham University at Lincoln Center and co-host of the podcast What’s In It for Us as well as FAQ NYC.

  • The one-year anniversary of lockdown-level pandemic is upon us, and there’s finally glimmers of hope as vaccines are being administered across the country. But a significant portion of Black Americans say they’re not planning to take it.

  • Medical racism is all too real, but the COVID vaccine is a must, especially for communities of color. Why is vaccine hesitancy so widespread and how can we address it?

  • White supremacist violence is on the rise. How does this other virus spread and what needs to change to stop it?

As the U.S. enters the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a third vaccine was rolled out and cases are trending down in many states.

But variants of the virus continue to spread and we’re not out of the woods yet. Bloomberg reports that it will take an estimated 6 months to cover 75% of the population with a two-dose vaccine (at the current rate, which is 2 million-plus doses per day).

And this week, Wendy Williams served up some strong tea by telling Dr. Oz she's not taking the vaccine because she doesn't trust the science.

She’s not the only one.

“There's consistently been a solid 30% [at least] of Black people who have told pollsters they don't want to take the vaccine,” says Toure.

“People throw out a variety of reasons, like it was rushed and who knows what's in it. We eat McDonald's, but we wonder what's in this vaccine?”

Vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans exists “partly because of racism and partly because of the fear of medicine, which comes from racism,” he adds. “I understand that. But we can't be stupid.”

Sometimes Toure jokes about how he’d rather die of a headache than pick cotton out of the top of an aspirin bottle. But of course he would, if it meant that pill would save his life.

“I drink water from a drinking fountain, because you know what? We have the right to do that now. We are our ancestors' wildest dreams. We cannot live based on fear.”

That’s why Toure and Christina are getting the vaccine, and suggest you do too.

Episode Highlights –– Get the Vaccine!

Tuskegee is the wrong rationale

The racist history of American medicine weighs heavily on us, Toure notes. But many Black folks who are reluctant to take the vaccine are using flawed logic.

“Sometimes they throw around the word Tuskegee, not knowing that in the Tuskegee Study, a vaccine was withheld from people over many decades.”

Christina thinks that reflects a failure of our educational system. Her sister, physician Florencia Greer Polite, recently co-wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times about vaccine hesitancy amongst Black healthcare workers, who are electing to take it at rates far lower than their white colleagues.

“Let's be real,” Christina says. “Black people have had horrible interactions with medical professionals in the past. And yes, Tuskegee comes up. But we've had sterilizations. We've had the lead paint experiments from Johns Hopkins. We've had doctors ignore us.”

She points out that even Serena Williams, who is one of the richest Black women in the world, endured a life-threatening childbirth experience due to medical racism.

It’s unfortunately a truism that “Black pain is not respected,” says Toure.

Wendy Williams: ‘So loud and so wrong’

So even though there are reasons for Black folks to have so much fear, cynicism and mistrust of the healthcare system, it’s both dangerous and self-defeating to avoid the vaccine.

That’s why Toure is “disappointed on so many levels” by “the arrogance of Wendy Williams’ ignorance.”

Christina agrees, but she’s also concerned about the influence Williams has via her massive platform –– “not just with Black people, but with young people and women, especially.”

Women are the leaders of their communities no matter where they are, she adds. So for Williams to “be so loud and so wrong” is particularly problematic.

When it comes to COVID, “we are disproportionately dying, disproportionately hospitalized … and there's no medical reason for it,” Christina says.

“They're all social reasons. We tend to be more essential workers and frontline workers in the medical fields, in hospitality. We tend to have less healthcare and more of us live in multi-generational homes and places with the worst air quality.”

Those are all “pre-existing conditions” that hit us more than others, says Toure.

“Especially Black people. We know it's disproportionate. Just ask Herman Cain.”

Vaccine push requires ‘collective action’

It's one thing for Williams to abstain from vaccination for her own reasons, but she’s now acting as an “advocate for anti-vaccination,” Christina says, even though millions of people listen to her every word.

Plus, there’s more than a little hypocrisy in her anti-vax stance.

“We know she has elective surgeries consistently,” says Christina. “That's a danger in and of itself. But all of a sudden, she’s scared of doctors. It's like, since when?”

Toure is troubled by Williams’ argument, which seems to be my body, my choice.

“Look, nobody's forcing you to get the vaccine,” he says. “However, we have to understand that the way vaccines work is for 90% of the community to take them. That saves the community. If only 70 or 60% of people take it, it won’t be effective at all. So we have to band together.”

Christina sees it as “a collective action” problem –– the same concept she teaches at the start of every Intro to Political Science class she’s taught for the past 20 years.

The “free riders” who choose not to take the vaccine will be the “beneficiaries of herd immunity,” she says. “But the problem is, when we have too many free riders, we get a tragedy of the commons. All of a sudden, the resources are either destroyed or overused.”

And, as she points out, Williams also has a colossal amount of class privilege.

“She can have people come in and out of one of her homes, buy her groceries, clean, drive her around ... She doesn't have to be on the subway. She doesn't have to be in the grocery store waiting in line.”

Pandemic fatigue syndrome

Next week marks a year [since full or partial lockdowns began in the U.S, and COVID fatigue is fully setting in for Christina.

“The last time I was on an airplane was March 10. I had to go to a funeral … March 6 was the last time I was in my office,” she says. “March 11 was the last time I was on the subway.”

Christina thinks some people steeled themselves for a certain amount of time: maybe six months or a year. She thought then it might be at least three, so she’s not surprised we’re still in pandemic mode.

“We had no vaccine … a maniac in the White House and these Republicans who didn't believe in science. We had Black thought leaders who were saying absolute nonsense. So I was like, we need to buckle up. It's gonna be a long ride.”

Toure never thought the crisis would last this long, but he doesn’t feel the same fatigue others do.

‘I'm a little bored,” he says. “But I don't totally mind not seeing people. I don't need parties. I'm good.”

Pod people problems

Toure’s wife, on the other hand, is feeling the fatigue, even though she has a small group of women she's close to in her COVID bubble.

“But she wants to expand and expand and expand. There’s this vibe of like, she's cool, right? She's clean. She's smart. She ain't got it.

But how do we really know?

“That's the thing about the pod,” says Christina. “I lost a friend because he broke our pod. I had to cut him off … We’re not talking now.”

At the time, she was living with her 72-year-old dad. She invited that friend to be in a pod with her and her family. Christina’s sister, the doctor, explained what it meant and everyone agreed to the rules.

“Toward the end of us being in the pod, he told me that right before we entered the pod, he broke the rules,” she explains.

But even though her family is fine, she can’t forgive her friend for putting them at risk.

“With this virus, it can sort of hang out for a while before you see the symptoms. So my question was, what if my dad had gotten sick? Would you have said something? He opened his home to us.”

The other virus: white violence

The other virus Toure wants to talk about is “the virus of white people.”

He is particularly disgusted by the latest developments in the trial of the cop who killed George Floyd.

First, many in the media are referring to it as the George Floyd trial.

“He is not on trial,” says Toure. “It is the Derek Chauvin trial.”

But in America in 2021, Floyd is on trial. There’s still a widespread assumption that anyone (who is Black) that the police approach or detain is somehow guilty.

“When Mike Brown was murdered, there was a Black journalist who was like, well, he's no angel. I was like, show me an angel. Please give me the names and email addresses of all the angels walking among us.”

And, as Toure points out, the right “is consistently detached from reality. The idea they have now is George Floyd was high on fentanyl, and that's why he died. Not the knee to the neck that cut off the blood, that cut off the air, to his brain.”

That knee cut off the air to a man who was still recovering from COVID, Christina says, adding: “It's like what Audre Lorde said: They'll kill us and tell us and tell us we asked for it.”

Cancer scare: Domestic extremism is ‘metastasizing’

On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the U.S. Senate that “domestic extremism is metastasizing” as part of his testimony in Congress’ investigation into the insurrection.

“Linking them to cancer right there,” says Toure, who thinks it’s important to address January 6 not as a singular event, but as a pattern.

We’ve seen it in Michigan when anti-lockdown advocates stormed the state capitol building, in the shooting of Gabby Giffords, and the Nazi tiki-torch march in Charlottesville, after which progressive activist Heather Heyer was murdered by a white nationalist who drove his car through a crowd of protesters.

There are countless other examples of “white politicized violence,” like the murders committed by Kyle Rittenhouse and Dylann Roof.

They’re symptomatic of a large swath of people who think they’re losing control of the country.

“They all know in 2040, white people will not be the majority,” he says.

“It's like their countdown clock,” says Christina.

“Right,” Toure replies. “And people who lean toward that way of thinking are increasingly violent about the direction of the country.”

From white hoods to police uniforms

Toure doesn’t see violent white people as an abstract danger. Like a cancer, they’re a “direct and tangible threat to my life and to your life,” he says.

That’s because the politics of white grievance go way beyond MAGA fans looting the U.S. Capitol.

More than 10 years ago, the FBI warned us that white supremacists are joining police forces in record numbers, spurred on by organized groups to do so as a means of perpetuating their dominance.

“So the cop who pulls you over could be a Proud Boy, a Klansman or just a white supremacist sympathizer,” says Toure.

Christina points out that it wasn’t law enforcement that “first told us about the influx of white nationalists in law enforcement –– it was our incarcerated citizens.”

They were the ones who raised the alarm about being locked up by corrections officers who are commonly tattooed with swastikas and even worse.

We also know that many people who serve in the armed forces go straight into law enforcement afterward.

“One of my mentees was in the military before coming to college,” says Christina. “His roommate read “Mein Kampf” and had a swastika flag and a Confederate flag –– in the U.S. military.”

White supremacists in positions of power have been a problem for so long that it seems self-evident, she says.

“How many reports do we need? How many task forces? We get it.”

American apartheid or systemic change?

The issue isn’t going to improve with the loss of a dominant white population, says Toure.

“Even though apartheid systems are possible,” Christina says. “Let's be clear: We still have a minority white population and white people running the show.”

That’s why Toure doesn’t assume that in 2040, Black people will be the majority in Congress.

“Also, what we've seen is you don't need white people for white supremacy, the same way you don't need men for patriarchy,” says Christina. “Women do a great job upholding patriarchy.”

Toure agrees.

“There are plenty of Black people who are perpetuating white supremacy, from the Candace Owenses to the Herschel Walkers to Diamond and Silk, Herman Cain and Ben Carson. How is that not racism?”

Toure doesn't want to focus on interpersonal microaggressions, even though it’s easier for white people to understand why they hurt.

“We really need to think about the way systems function, the way white privilege and white supremacy functions –– to produce bias, to produce differences between our communities. And there are absolutely Black people who are part of perpetuating that system.”

NIMBY (or school district)

Christina thinks “there are a lot of good-meaning liberal white people who have made the change internally” when it comes to everyday behavior (like microaggressions).

“But when it comes to changing systems, i.e., integrating their child's schools, it's like, hey, that's a bridge too far.”

She’s witnessed proud white Obama/Hillary voters engage in “debates that look like they’re in Southern Mississippi. These parents are screaming to make sure that their five-year-old doesn't go to school with a Black kid from the project across the street … they don’t want the quality of [their kids’] education to go down.

In that way, institutional change can be a threat, and “all of a sudden, we have hemming and hawing and a NIMBY issue –– Not In My Backyard.”

Christina says she sees white folks agree that integration is great in theory. So is hiring talented people of color. But it often doesn’t happen “if it's at the expense of any inconvenience” in their lives.

Toure has seen this too: “Being nice to people, being open-minded, giving a big tip to the doorman at Christmas––”

“And telling all your friends about it, by the way,” Christina interjects.

“Oh my god, right. That is so lovely,” Toure deadpans. “And being open minded when you see new forms of dance. But then I freak out because my property value may go down if the [Black] Jacksons move here.”

And he doesn’t want white parents looking at little “Tyrone or Keisha to teach their child about other cultures and other ways of being, to enrich their child's life,” he says.

“That's problematic, too. We’re not here to teach you or be your tour guide into another world so you can feel better about yourself.”

Christina remembers a study that asked white people if they have a Black friend. 40% of white people said yes. But the follow-up question stipulated that said Black friend couldn’t be in their employ.

“It dropped down to, like, 10%,” she says. Ouch.

Toure isn’t surprised.

“How many Black people would either pick you up from the airport, help you move or babysit your kid for free? That's a friend.”

“If you're paying me, of course I laugh at your jokes,” Christina says. “But that doesn't make us friends.”

Democracy-ish, Danielle and hopefully America will be back next week, even though Toure’s faith is wavering in the latter.

“Oh, my God,” he says. “It’s such a mess. I hate it here.”

Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ishas Danielle Moodie and Toure discuss the current state of the political climate and our country from a Black perspective.


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