That last one is a problem particularly because vaccinations are a measurable nexus of politics and efforts to combat the virus. Mask-wearing is political, too, but it’s hard to divine the extent to which masks are being worn and how that affects the virus’s spread. But vaccination rates are correlated to the state of the pandemic, particularly hospitalizations and deaths. So political positions on vaccination trace a faint line to how many people get sick and how many people die.
Because of this, because the pandemic has been called a pandemic of the unvaccinated, there has been an effort by those on the right — where vaccine opposition is higher — to try to drag the left — specifically, Black Democrats — into that group of unvaccinated Americans. The idea is not subtle: You blame Republicans for not getting vaccinated, but Black Americans are contributing to the problem, as well.
New data continues to undermine that argument.
Consider new polling from the Pew Research Center. It tracked vaccine uptake over the course of the year, finding that Democrats and Asian Americans are the groups most likely to say they have received a dose of the vaccine. Black Americans are the racial group least likely to say so, though that figure is about equal to the percentage of Whites who say they’ve received a dose. It is also higher than three groups that are largely Republican: Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, rural Americans and White evangelical Protestants.
Over the course of the vaccine rollout, we’ve seen that polling on vaccinations tracks with actual vaccination numbers, but it is the case that someone saying they are vaccinated is different from their actually being vaccinated. So we can look, once again, at the most obvious overlap of vaccination and politics: how counties voted in 2020 and how heavily vaccinated they are.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking this over time, finding on Tuesday that about 53 percent of people in counties that voted for Joe Biden in 2020 are fully vaccinated, compared with 40 percent of people in counties that voted for Donald Trump. In May, the gap between the two was only seven percentage points. Now it’s nearly twice as big.
We can express that correlation visually. Counties that voted more heavily for Biden are higher on the first graph below, meaning that more of their population is vaccinated. Counties that voted more heavily for Trump are less densely vaccinated.
If instead of the 2020 vote we compare Black population density with vaccinations, there’s no similarly apparent link. Looking only at counties for which vaccination data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (meaning, for example, none in Texas), we can see numerically that there’s a stronger correlation between the 2020 vote (r of 0.45) than Black population density (r of 0.17).
Or we can look at it yet another way. If we divvy up every county for which there is vaccination data into deciles — that is, equal-size tenths — according to Black population density, White population density and 2020 vote margin, we can see visually how race and voting patterns affect vaccination. On the graphs below, larger circles indicate higher average vaccination rates for each group of counties. Explanation after the graph.
So we see that average vaccination rates decrease as the density of Black residents increases in the most heavily pro-Biden counties. If we use the most pro-Biden and most heavily Black county set as an index (the one in dark orange), we can compare it with the average vaccination rate for county groups. What we see is that the more heavily pro-Trump counties are, on average, the less densely vaccinated (the circles in gray).
All of this obscures an important point: There are more Republicans than Black Americans. Gallup estimates that 4 in 10 Americans are Republican or Republican-leaning independents. Only about 13 percent of the country is Black, many of them under the age of 18. So even if the same percentage of the Black and Republican populations were unvaccinated, that’s a lot more Republicans than Black people in the pool of the unvaccinated.
Again looking only at the counties for which we have vaccination data, a slightly higher percentage of Black Americans than Trump voters live in the half of counties with the highest vaccination rates. But 1.9 times as many Trump voters overall live in the less vaccinated half of counties. There are about 7.4 million more Trump voters than Black residents in those least-vaccinated counties. There are a lot more Trump voters in the more heavily vaccinated counties, too, of course, but the ratio is narrower: 1.8 times as many.
None of this is a defense of those who aren’t vaccinated, whatever their race or politics. It is, instead, an effort to contextualize the continued effort by many on the right to point fingers at Black Americans as deserving of particular criticism on vaccination rates.
Incidentally, the Pew data gets at another important consideration, one also reflected in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s polling from July: Black Americans are also more likely to say they would get vaccinated. New polling from Monmouth University estimates that five times as many Republican as Black respondents say they will never get a vaccination.
That’s the overlap with politics that is rightfully drawing attention.