Brenda Lawrence, Black caucus plan pro-vaccine campaign

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Melissa Nann Burke, The Detroit News
·3 min read
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Apr. 14—WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus met Tuesday with President Joe Biden at the White House, and one of the topics discussed was a pro-vaccine initiative that is the brainchild of Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat.

The caucus wants to launch a vaccination day or week in the African American community that would be akin to Election Day voting drives or "souls to the polls" efforts and bring people out to get the shot.

"We've seen hesitancy, but we're also seeing lack of education and distribution," Lawrence said Tuesday after the Biden meeting.

"We are trying to use all of our bully platforms to come together, use the education, to let our community know that, to live and to be able to fight this virus, we need all of you to come in and get it."

Lawrence, who is vice chair of the CBC, said the effort will be led by the Black Caucus in partnership with the NAACP and the Urban League. Leaders also have asked for the White House to partner on the campaign.

"You all know how to vote. You know how it's 'voting day.' So it would be Vaccination Day or Week, where you go into the community, without having a reservation, and come in and get your vaccines," Lawrence said. "We must do this to keep our community strong and alive."

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has reportedly been high among Black Americans — rooted in mistrust in the medical system due to the history of racism in health care and episodes like the Tuskegee experiment, in which Blacks who participated in a syphilis study were given placebos instead of treatment even after penicillin was discovered as a cure.

But some CBC members disputed the notion Tuesday that vaccine "hesitancy" is leading to lower vaccination levels in African American communities. Caucus chair Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, said hesitancy isn't the No. 1 problem in the community.

"It is having access to it. It is needing more education and awareness. It is transportation," she said.

"Now, are there some people who remember where you're going with the Tuskegee experiment or Henrietta Lacks? All of us here remember that. But guess what? All of us here are vaccinated," Beatty added.

"We want to dispel this (notion of) hesitancy, and that's one of the reasons we're doing the 'get out to get vaccinated.'"

Beatty noted that the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed recently by Congress included funding for vaccine distribution to underserved and minority communities.

CBC lawmakers who spoke to reporters outside the the White House said Biden had recommitted to nominating a Black woman as his first pick for the U.S. Supreme Court, should a vacancy arise.

The lawmakers said they also raised the issue of reparations for slavery, and that Biden indicated his support for a bill to create a commission to study the issue and consider remedies. The late U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit was a long-time advocate for reparations and reintroduced the legislation every Congress for nearly 30 years.

The White House said the caucus also discussed with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris issues including voting rights, economic empowerment and a police reform bill named for George Floyd, a Black man killed last year in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who is now on trial for murder.

Biden acknowledged the caucus had marked a "pretty painful week" with the death of Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, a longtime CBC member who had cancer, and the fatal police shooting of a Black motorist, Daunte Wright, in Minnesota that Biden called "godawful."

"But we're in the business, all of us meeting today, to deliver some real change," the president said at the start of the meeting.

Asked by a reporter about what hope people should have for actual change in the way African Americans interact with police during the Biden era, he answered, "A lot."

mburke@detroitnews.com