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The ‘what about Black people’ defense of Republican vaccine hesitancy

A person receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine during a Miami-Dade County outreach event in Miami on May 13. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg News)
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Given how frequently Republicans have relied on whataboutism during the era of Donald Trump’s primacy in politics — what about Hillary?! what about the Democrats?!, etc. — it’s probably not surprising that questions about Republican vaccine hesitancy would eventually get to the same point. Where many on the right have landed is in a particularly awkward place: Sure, Republican vaccination rates are low, but what about Black people?

There’s certainly an element of “other”-ism at play, an effort to redirect the ire of outside observers and the left toward a distinctly non-Republican group. Don’t blame us, blame Black people is certainly a rhetorical choice one might make.

But it is also the case that, in many places, vaccination rates among Black people do trail the rates among Whites. Bloomberg News has compiled state-level data showing the frequent disparity, including in New York. Here, for example, are the current numbers for New York City itself, which makes up a bit under half of the state’s population.

Among White residents, the vaccination rate for the entire population is a bit under 50 percent. Among Black residents, it’s only 35 percent.

Of course, one reason that more emphasis is put on Republican hesitancy than low vaccination rates among Black Americans is that there are a lot more Republicans. There are about twice as many Republicans as there are Black people in the United States. In New York City, there are more unvaccinated White people than Black people, despite the difference in vaccination rates.

Polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation released Wednesday morning makes obvious the disparity in the importance of each group. It estimates that Black Americans make up about 13 percent of the unvaccinated population and 13 percent of the group that says it will never receive a dose of the vaccine. Republicans, by contrast, make up more than half of each group, including nearly 6 in 10 of those who say they won’t get vaccinated.

Black Americans are only slightly more hesitant than Whites to get vaccinated, according to the Kaiser survey. (Whites make up two-thirds of those who say they won’t get vaccinated, according to the survey.) But that group of White adults includes a lot of White Republicans. Compared with White Democrats, there’s a bigger disparity.

Of course, that Black Americans are more hesitant about being vaccinated than White Democrats in particular doesn’t really help the argument that Black hesitation rates should be compared unfavorably with Republicans. It’s also disingenuous to compare Black and White vaccination rates overall, since White rates are actually higher in part because so many White people are Democrats! Those making this comparison are essentially using high vaccination support among White Democrats as a way to disparage lower rates among Black people.

This partisan split among Whites helps explain the difference in vaccination rates in New York City. After all, most White New Yorkers are Democrats, meaning that one might expect there to be a higher vaccination rate among Whites there than in places where Whites are more heavily Republican (and, therefore, vaccine skeptical).

All of that said, there has nonetheless been a great deal of reporting both on why Black Americans might be more hesitant to get vaccinated and on why they might be less likely to have received a shot even if they want one.

In April, for example, Duke University professor Gary Bennett explained that there were historic trust issues between Black Americans and both medical and governmental institutions that might lead to more caution in getting vaccinated. He also pointed out that social networks play a significant role in assessments of vaccination — something obvious among Republicans, too. Again, though, Black people express only slightly more hesitance about being vaccinated than Whites.

That suggests that the question of access is important. In February, NPR mapped vaccine distribution sites, finding that more-White neighborhoods often had better access. In June, with access more broadly available, The Washington Post looked at the process in Philadelphia, where officials proactively tried to account for a number of structural issues that Black residents might face.

“City health officials said they considered the barriers that fuel disparities in vaccinations — transportation difficulties, scheduling conflicts, skewed demographics of those in early eligibility categories and the location of clinics — when they were opening about 275 sites,” Akilah Johnson and Dan Keating reported. Yet the city still struggled.

“People who have means and resources, who in Philadelphia tend to be more White, are the ones who are able to game the system better,” James Garrow, spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, told The Post. “So even as we tried to set up these systems to facilitate getting access to underserved populations … they didn’t have all of the safeguards that they probably needed.”

Again, there’s lots of documentation of these effects.

In New York City, we see a similar overlap of resources (or at least income), race and vaccinations. Zip codes with lower average incomes have lower vaccination rates — and more non-White residents.

In other words, the reasons that low vaccination rates among Black Americans are not somehow a counterpoint to low vaccination rates among Republicans are as follows:

  • Black people are much less likely than Republicans to say that they refuse to be vaccinated.
  • There are about four times as many Republicans as Black people in the ranks of the unvaccinated and a slightly higher proportion of Republicans among those who say they won’t get vaccinated.
  • Vaccination rates among Black Americans also reflect structural problems that often overlap with income.

Oh, also? Trying to rebut a largely partisan opposition to vaccination by blaming a historically disadvantaged group as the real problem without actually exhibiting any curiosity about the distinctions is not a real testament to intellectual rigor.

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