Speaking to the Religion News Service this week, Cardinal Gregory urged Americans—especially Black Americans—to be open to a COVID-19 vaccine, whenever and whatever that might be.
"...let’s not miss the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of this medical scientific discovery. Let’s not allow the past to keep us from having a future.”
His reference to the "past" concerned the main deterrent within the Black community concerning this and other other unfamiliar medical treatments: subterfuge.
His reference to "us" referred to the ethnic group most opposed to the vaccine: Black people themselves.
As recently as the 1970s, the federal government was known to be experimenting on Black Americans without their consent—with the Tuskegee Genocide ending in 1972 only after a media leak.
That same year, a widespread eugenics campaign was exposed that targeted Black women in the South.
This, combined with a host of other reservations regarding American medical care, have caused many Black people to view a COVID inoculation with suspicion—as not even half are planning to get one, and even fewer having any trust that the government is looking out for their interests.
In September, Dr. C. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana—the nation's only Catholic HBCU—sent a letter to students announcing his participation in a local vaccine trial in New Orleans.
This sparked a heated debate among many alumni and other Black commentators, as the letter also encouraged students themselves to "consider participating in this trial or others being conducted".
Much of the uproar was due to the fact that many students may not be aware of the full history of untested medicine in the Black community (though the letter did mention Tuskegee).
Now, just over 90 days later, the highest-ranking Catholic official in America—and perhaps the most visible Black figure in the current news cycle—is also attempting to distance a (yet-to-be-seen) vaccine from a racist precedent.
While no one in the Black community is pleased with the disparate effects the virus is having among their own, it seems that the Ghost of Tuskegee remains a dark spectre over any new medical treatments—even those endorsed by a prince.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).