Welcome to Race on Campus. In a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, two researchers argued that vaccine distrust in communities of color stems from more than just historical injustices; everyday racism plays a role, too. I talked with one of the researchers about how colleges can help curb the emerging inequity in who is vaccinated for Covid-19.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Colleges can help communities of color trust the Covid-19 vaccines. Here’s how.

In the nearly two months since the United States began distributing coronavirus vaccines, early reports from Colorado, Maryland, New York, and Texas have shown that eligible Black and Latino residents are getting the vaccines at lower rates than other residents are. The racial disparity is troubling because the populations that are being vaccinated at lower rates are more at risk in the coronavirus pandemic.

Fatima C. Stanford

Fatima C. Stanford, director of diversity for the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard University, sees a clear reason for the trend: vaccine distrust among people of color. In a recent article for The New England Journal of Medicine, she and a co-author wrote that the lack of trust is fueled less by historical injustices, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study or the life of Henrietta Lacks, and more by the everyday racism that Black people face from the medical community.

I spoke with Stanford recently about what’s driving the vaccine-distribution disparity and what colleges could do to help. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve read that the problem is layered: There is vaccine distrust, but people with more resources — that means anything from internet access to ability/disability — are more likely to get appointments, and that’s often white people. Do you think that there’s something beyond trust that plays into this?

I still think trust is the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 issue. If we don’t get past that, then we don’t even begin to get into “Will people have access to it?” Access does become an issue, but we have to get past the trust.

Once I trust that this is the right thing, do I have access to get what I want? What does that look like? Is it something that is far away from where I live or not accessible by public transportation? Is it something in my community that I can easily access?

For example, in Atlanta, Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically Black medical school, has been distributing vaccines to the Black community. When Black residents see, “That’s where I can go,” a place they trust, which mostly has Black doctors, they feel, “OK, I’ve gotten over the fact that I want this vaccine. It’s a place that I trust.” People need reliable sources and reports on how people have done.

For example, Hank Aaron, the baseball legend, recently died in Atlanta. He was one of the first that was vaccinated in his age group, and he was vaccinated at Morehouse School of Medicine. In a community that already has distrust, you have a legend like Aaron who dies relatively soon after the administration of the Covid-19 vaccine. The first question that comes to the minds of individuals is: Is it because he got vaccinated that he died?

There’s a prominent figure, and he was vocal about why you need to get the vaccine. Did this backfire on the Atlanta community? Until it’s disclosed, “The cause of death is X,” you can see how this might have potentially backfired.

What role should colleges and universities play in building trust?

For example, Morehouse School of Medicine is a pillar within the community. They’ve decided, “Why not make a site where people can go get the vaccine?” When we think about influence within major cities and rural places, those institutions of higher education are where we get our knowledge. Whether it’s about influenza or HIV or whatever, it’s usually those institutions providing information to the community. They trust, “I’m hearing it from the institution or medical school, then that must be a reliable source of information.”

If we’re thinking about students, we should also be making sure that they get information. They are serving in their own personal community of family and friends.

So universities could arm their students with information to share with their families. Loved ones might think, “The student goes to Xavier or LSU or Harvard; I’m going to trust them. They’re the smart kid in my life.”

Exactly. For example, for my second degree, I would go into communities, as someone who grew up in the Atlanta area. I would speak, and they’re like, “That’s Fatima. She’s great. She’s one of us.” I was bringing information from Emory University, but I was one of their own. That information was received much better than from someone that had no ties to the community. In addition to that, maybe colleges are a source for actually administering. People feel more comfortable going to a university for vaccine administration than they would going to other places.

What do you think we have the opportunity to do with the vaccine rollout?

We have the ability to address the structural racism embedded within our society — particularly within our health-care institutions — which have precluded us from ensuring that certain groups are getting access to high-quality care.

Unlike any other time, health-care institutions are paying attention to inequity. It’s not just about having a conversation or developing a plan. It’s about making it so that persons like myself — a Black woman, for example, who happens to be a physician — actually build the change, and that the change is sustainable. We have a unique opportunity to tackle this in a way that we have not been able to do in the past because the awareness was not there.

But awareness doesn’t lead to action and sustainability. This has taken national prominence. It’s a worldwide issue. We have no excuse but to make change that is sustainable.

Is there anything else that you want to add?

If we’re talking about using the people that represent those communities, for example Black physicians, there needs to be more attention to training individuals from these groups that are more likely to have a voice that’s trusted in the communities. That has to start very early.

We have the leaky pipeline, where you have some people that are in the pipeline to potentially make it but don’t have the support structures available. Black doctors, they’re more likely to care for Black patients. If we’re not training Black doctors because they didn’t have great access to educational institutions and training, then we won’t have the work force that’s needed to serve the communities that most need it.

Read up.

  • You may have seen the headlines last summer about accusations of racism at Bon Appétit magazine. This episode of the Reply All podcast investigates the culture of the magazine’s test kitchen and interviews former employees of color who are still processing the experience. (Gimlet Media)
  • This New England police chief said there was no institutional racism in his department. But he failed to disclose multiple investigations of his officers for racist behavior. (Telegram & Gazette)
  • In recent years, many colleges have cut their course offerings in European languages. The University of California at Los Angeles, however, is doubling down on courses in French, German, Italian, and Scandinavian languages, and incorporating perspectives from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, regions colonized by Europeans. (Los Angeles Times)

—Fernanda