‘Truth and healing’: Jamaal Bowman’s prescription to overcome vaccine skepticism in Black America | New York

An emerging leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic party has argued that politicians must act as role models as part of a concerted effort to combat skepticism of the Covid-19 vaccine, particularly among some Black Americans.

Congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman, the progressive New York Democrat who defeated longtime incumbent congressman and outgoing House foreign affairs committee chairman Eliot Engel, voiced his concerns in a short but expansive interview with the Guardian. Those concerns coincide with reports of suspicion in the Black community over taking coronavirus vaccines when available.

“It’s a major concern, it’s very real, and it communicates the lack of trust that African Americans feel towards American institutions over all,” Bowman said.

On Friday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave emergency approval for a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to be rolled out across the country. The first Covid-19 vaccinations were administered to American health workers this week. The first person to receive the shot outside clinical trials was intensive care nurse Sandra Lindsay, a black woman who said she hoped she would help “inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines”.

Since his surprise victory over Engel in the primary for New York’s 16th congressional district, Bowman has emerged as a politically ideological colleague of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and other young progressive members of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives.

There hasn’t been the truth, the reconciliation, the healing that needs to take place to deal with our history and legacy of racism

Jamaal Bowman

“There’s no trust because there hasn’t been the truth, the reconciliation, the healing that needs to take place to deal with our history and legacy of racism and how it continues to persist,” Bowman said of vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. “If we went through a process of truth, healing and restitution we’d begin to bridge the gap between the harms that happened in our communities and that continue to happen and the trust that is needed. So no, it’s very real.”

Asked if there was some kind of surrogate who could maybe alleviate that skepticism – Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris perhaps or former president Barack Obama – Bowman said “all of the above”.

“Well it’s not just Kamala Harris, it’s Jamaal Bowman, it’s [congresswoman] Ayanna Pressley, it’s [congresswoman-elect] Cori Bush, it’s president-elect Joe Biden,” Bowman said. “It’s all of the above. But again we have to understand that this lack of trust is generationally embedded because Black people continue to get the short end of the stick when it comes to being uninsured and underinsured.”

The heightened expression of concern by Bowman underscores the difficulty various US political leaders see in distributing a vaccine and vanquishing the virus, as other countries have already done or are in the process of.

Bowman, for much of his time as a congressman-elect, has been talking about his plans for tackling inequality and systemic racism in the country. He is a supporter of the “defund the police” movement, and has openly called out former president Barack Obama on his analysis of the electoral liabilities of supporting the proposals.

Jamaal Bowman campaigns for Congress in Mt Vernon, New York, on 23 June 2020.
Jamaal Bowman campaigns for Congress in Mt Vernon, New York, on 23 June 2020. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Advocates for the “defund the police” movement have argued broadly that there needs to be a serious reallocation of money and resources to police forces. But conservative critics have used the proposals’ name to mislead voters to think advocates literally want to take all funding away from police forces, which has led some moderate Democrats to distance themselves from the slogan.

Obama, in an interview with Snapchat’s Peter Hamby, said: “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund The Police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”

Similarly, earlier this month in a meeting with civil rights leaders, echoed Obama’s criticizing, blaming the Defund the Police slogan for Democratic down ballot losses.

In a rare move for a soon-to-be congressman of the same party as the popular Obama, Bowman sent out a fundraising email saying he was “disappointed” in the 44th president’s comments.

“The problem isn’t America’s discomfort with snappy slogans. The real problem is America’s comfort with Black death,” Bowman wrote in the fundraising email. Similarly, he said that even referring to it as something other than “Defund the Police” is wrongheaded.

“Well that’s the problem right? We are always acquiescing to the center, to right, and to Republicans on what we should say and how we should say it. My problem is white comfort with Black death,” Bowman said. “I am personally tired of white comfort with black death. So when I hear president-elect Biden say that, when I hear [congressman] Connor Lamb say that I don’t – even former president Obama – I don’t hear the real conversation around why the hell doesn’t America feel uncomfortable with Black death.”

Bowman has been more active in shaping his place on Capitol Hill than most Democratic congressional nominees or congressmen-elect. Bowman’s district leans so heavily Democratic that whoever wins the primary is the all but certain favorite to win the general election. After he won the primary Bowman endorsed and sent out fundraising emails for like-minded candidates around the country.

Bowman has already been thinking about where he would like to have a legislative impact. He’s hoping to get a spot on the House education and labor committee and a spot on the House committee on transportation and infrastructure. He has aligned himself with Ocasio-Cortez and is likely to be an addition to the set of young firebrand progressive lawmakers nicknamed “The Squad”.

Ocasio-Cortez, the most famous member of the Squad, recently said she didn’t see an overarching vision in the series of cabinet appointments Biden has made so far. Bowman concurred.

“Well I think president-elect Biden’s goal is diversity and I see some racial diversity. I see some gender diversity. I see some ideological diversity and I think president-elect Biden will lead to the best answers and the best solutions for our country,” Bowman said, going on to directly address Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks. “I don’t fully disagree with that.”