The Xavier Dillard Experiment: Two HBCU Presidents Pushing the COVID Vaccine On Their Students

The presidents of Xavier and Dillard University, C. Reynold Verret and Walter M. Kimbrough, sent an open letter last Wednesday to announce their participation in the Ochsner Medical System’s vaccine trial. This outreach strategy sounds progressive because Black people are 2.5x more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. We do indeed need a race/informed solution to this public health crisis. 

The letter encouraged Black and Brown students and faculty to participate in the vaccine trial while still acknowledging the medical apartheid that our health system sanctions. These HBCU presidents stated that “It is of the utmost importance that a significant number of black and brown subjects participate so that the effectiveness of these vaccines be understood across the many diverse populations that compromise these United States.” However, stating that we are the most harmed and affected by the virus does not justify encouraging us to once again put our bodies on the line for the advancement of medicine. Specifically mentioning the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to reach the generations that were directly harmed, plays into our sensitivity in an extremely distasteful manner.

While HBCUs are supposed to uplift and invest in Black futures, we can not at the same time ignore racist infrastructure or make light of the history of torture, sterilization, and experimentation. As a Howard University student, I am too aware of the anti-Black structures of our HBCUs and how that internalized White supremacy negatively impacts the student body that generates the culture, research, and excellence that we revere. Black Institutions that carry our history are well-informed on this truth and yet perpetuate it too often. We are used for science but seldom gain access to the benefits garnered from the sacrifices on our bodies.

Dr. J. Marion Sims is considered the father of gynecology and performed experiments on enslaved African women, in order to advance medicine for White women. Between 1846 and 1849 he performed surgeries on African women without anesthesia. Once he perfected the procedures, he moved to New York, opened a hospital, and operated on White women, but this time with anesthesia. Black women still face this trauma today when entering reproductive health practices that still reflect that history within their current practices. Ultimately, the origins of gynecological research is a direct correlation to why Black women are 3 to 4x more likely to experience maternal mortality or morbidity. The sickening reality of our personal treatment extends to medical research.

 Modern cancer treatment also owes everything to a Black woman —Henrietta Lacks. While even today, Black women like Lacks receive inadequate care and face discrimination.  “She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” says one of Lacks descendants. 

“Whether you think the commercialization of medical research is good or bad depends on how into capitalism you are.” Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I wonder whether or not funding played a role in both presidents offering up not only their young people, our community’s future leaders, but also themselves, their families, and faculty and staff. Poverty is government sanctioned. There is an intentional withholding of health and wellness from our communities in order to perpetuate racialized capitalism. 

If we can’t expect our local hospitals and urgent care centers to treat us with equity and dignity, then we can no longer use our bodies to advance science for the rest of y’all. 

In North Carolina, for over 40 years, a statewide eugenics program forcibly sterilized thousands of Black people. The program was designed to decrease the Black population in the state. In fact, a recent Duke University study showed  that the program’s disproportionate effect on Black people was no accident—“program was designed explicitly to ‘breed out’ nonworking Black residents.” The racist political agenda that exists in science has to be demolished not for our ‘advancement’, but for our survival. 

The aforementioned stories only scratch the surface of the realities of our community’s relationship with the American health care system. For these reasons and countless others, we don’t trust it. “According to a May report from the Pew Research Center, Black Americans trust doctors less than their White counterparts, but they trust medical researchers a whole lot less, with only 53 percent expressing a positive opinion of people in that profession.” 

Xavier and Dillard University must rethink this outreach program that asks Black students to be on the frontlines of COVID research. There cannot be spontaneous trust in our medical facilities. Our bodies must be respected as much as our white counterparts. We must first heal from the experiences we carry from these traumas. Reparations and dependable reassurance of our safety are necessary for medical advancement. 

If we can’t expect our local hospitals and urgent care centers to treat us with equity and dignity, then we can no longer use our bodies to advance science for the rest of y’all. 

– Naima Bandele, Howard University, African Studies Major and student-activist

Further Readings

 New Paper Examines Disproportionate Effect of Eugenics on NC’s Black Population 

Black newborns more likely to die when looked after by White doctors 

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present

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