We need to talk about anti-vaxxing in Black communities
By Zoé Samudzi
Chances are, our engagement with “vaccine skeptics” has been limited to white anti-vaxxers. They often cite scientific empirics claiming causal relationships between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) sequences and autism diagnosis, even using the now retracted study published by British physician Andrew Wakefield in 1998 as a basis for their argument. Wakefield’s results weren’t just found to be fabricated, but he also failed to disclose that his research was funded by lawyers representing parents who had sued vaccine companies. He was subsequently barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.
These anti-vaxxers’ entire arguments are predicated on deeply ableist and scientifically unfounded ideas. But far more complicated than the fake science of white anti-vaxxers is the deep-rooted vaccine skepticism that exists within Black communities. Unlike many of these research-reliant arguments that are fairly easy to prove false, vaccine skepticism in Black communities stems partially from a fear of historical trauma and scientific racism that is tragically verifiable. Unfortunately, our valid concerns as Black people are being exploited by these very anti-vaxxers for their own selfish and troubling social and political ends.
Anna Merlan reported links between anti-vaxxing organizations and the Nation of Islam at least as far back as 2015. She writes that in October 2015, at a commemoration of the Million Man March, Nation Minister Tony Muhammad accused the government of poisoning Black and Latinx children via MMR vaccine schedules. He called upon the Black community to be vigilant so as to avoid another Tuskegee, invoking the legacy of the deeply unethical 40-year United States Public Health study where Black men living in rural Alabama were injected with syphilis without their informed consent or even full understanding of the treatment they would receive. One consequence of the discovery of the study has been a widespread distrust Black people have for the health system.
Minister Tony told the crowd that this information was sourced by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a member of the Kennedy dynasty and a well-noted anti-vaxxer who President Donald Trump recently selected to chair a federal panel on vaccine safety. In addition, while fighting against the passage of California’s mandatory vaccination law SB 277 in 2o15, the Nation held a town hall event at a community center owned by the Church of Scientology, highlighting the existing social and political connections between the two religious organizations.
A major difference between monied white anti-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers within poor and working class communities of color is the differential access to medical care in the event that their unvaccinated children do get sick. This is particularly the case now that the Republican-dominated government is attempting to eliminate Medicaid, which would reduce access to state-run health services for children.
There are a few reasons why the likes of Kennedy might recruit the Nation to his anti-vaxxing cause: well-founded Black fears of western biomedicine and scientific racism legitimize the claims of white anti-vaxxers whose unreliable empirics allow the majority of people to perceive them as a somewhat fringe and easily dismissible group.
There are also convergences in the anti-vaccine and conservative pro-life politics of the likes Kennedy and Louis Farrakhan rooted in discourses around the rights and safety of racialized children. It is the same line of thought that holds the myth that Planned Parenthood clinics were created to control Black populations that also holds that vaccines are poisonous and deliberately destroying the potential of young Black men by giving them autism and other development disorders. (This is an addendum to the series of theories about whiteness’ emasculation of Black men that often quickly veers into homophobia, [trans]misogynoir, and enforcement of hegemonic masculinities à la “Dr.” Umar Johnson and others.)
Despite people of color’s well-founded concerns about vaccinations (particularly in a country where women of color have been forcibly and unknowingly sterilized for centuries), the burden of disease outbreak because of unvaccinated children hits racialized communities hardest. In Minnesota, Somali-American communities have been targeted by anti-vaccination campaigners, and recent drops in community vaccination and vaccinations rates across the state have led to a measles outbreak that has exceeded the total number of reported cases in the entire United States. The mortality rate for measles is only about 0.2%, but it is a highly infectious disease that can spread rapidly within communities that have lowered collective immunity because people are not vaccinated.
It is glaringly obvious that these white anti-vaxxers do not care about the Black communities they are deliberately misinforming with spurious data. They are simply exploiting the historical trauma and a frequent lack of critical health education in Black communities to peddle an anti-science politic with potentially disastrous public health implications. Our health––our children––are expendable to them.
Although deep skepticism and critique of the government’s historical and present health interventions is warranted (e.g. I no longer get an annual flu shot because I do not have a suppressed immune system and I am wary about over-medication and over-use of antibiotics and antimicrobial/antibiotic resistance), we cannot afford for our distrust to be manipulated when our community’s health is at stake.
Zoé Samudzi is a queer African feminist, writer, and Sociology PhD student at the University of California-San Francisco.