Brenda Lawrence, Black caucus plan pro-vaccine campaign

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

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 know that in the Black community, whether it’s hesitancy or lack of information, education or accessibility, our vaccination numbers are not where they need to be," Lawrence said in an interview after the Biden meeting.

She presented her idea to the CBC leadership and said the caucus needed to lead by saying that they want everyone in the community to be vaccinated.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks with Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, D-Detroit, during a voter mobilization event in Detroit on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020.

"We know how to build a structure for voting: You advertise, you knock on doors, you put your message out there and drive people to the polls. And so we're gonna use that same format to drive people to the vaccine centers," Lawrence said. 

The plan is to tie the effort to Mother's Day, and potentially use some precinct locations that people are already familiar with in their neighborhoods and that they could walk to, she said. Appointments wouldn't be required. 

"If you love your mother, then go get your vaccine," Lawrence said. "We asked for him to support us by making sure we have the vaccines in those centers. And we're going to meet with the governors, as well."

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.

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. 

Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, center, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaks with members of the press alongside caucus members after meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington.

"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 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 bill was scheduled to be considered Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee.

President Joe Biden speaks as he and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington. Sitting are House Majority Whip James Clyburn, of S.C., from left, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio.

The White House said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also discussed with the caucus 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." 

Lawrence said the White House meeting lasted two hours and stood in stark contrast to the meeting the CBC had with former Republican President Donald Trump after he took office in 2017.

"The difference was night and day," she said of Biden. "He was informed, he knew about our issues, and he was just really willing to listen."