Racialized comments on vaccination rates are dangerous and irresponsible

Scapegoating is despicable

August 31, 2021 12:01 am

Jennifer Simmons receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during “Senior Weekend” at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Most prevarications uttered by Republican politicos can be dismissed, fact-checked or denounced. Remember “Jewish space lasers” setting California lands ablaze? Or the former president suggesting an injection of Lysol could cure coronavirus?

However, a Texas GOP official’s steaming pile of excrement about African-Americans and COVID-19 seep into a truly dangerous sphere. It can’t be ignored because this nation has treated people of color as scapegoats – especially Blacks.

There’s a long history of lynchings and other incidents where citizens took the law into their own hands against African-Americans. Blacks have been treated as less than human, a plague, and not worthy of the rights, privileges and protections freely given to Whites.

That’s why you can’t overlook the outright lies Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spewed earlier this month. “African Americans who have not been vaccinated,” he said, are “the biggest group in most states” contributing to the spike in coronavirus cases. “The last time I checked over 90 percent of them vote for Democrats,” Patrick said, adding it’s up to Democrats and Republicans alike to encourage vaccination.

Patrick made the comments on Fox “News,” that bastion of falsehoods and race-baiting. But I digress.

First, the statistics. Then, the greater context of such claims.

Here’s what CNN reported in fact-checking Patrick’s comments: “Just on raw numbers, Black people, at about 13 percent of the total population, are not the ‘biggest group’ of unvaccinated people either in Texas or across the U.S. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that White adults account for the largest share of unvaccinated adults.

“Even if we dive into the rates, the implication from Patrick that Black people are especially to blame for spreading the virus is not accurate.”

The article continues, “The KFF analysis notes that ‘Black and Hispanic people remain less likely than their White counterparts to have received a vaccine.’ However, vaccination rates among Black people continue to increase while the rate among White people is on the decline.”

The Washington Post said vaccination rates are low among Black Texans, but the highest coronavirus case rates in that state are among Whites and Hispanics. Later on Facebook, Patrick said he was referring to vaccination rates, not the overall number of unvaccinated Black people.

Patrick’s spokesman, Steven Aranyi, didn’t respond to my questions by email.

But in comments to The Poynter Institute’s Politifact, Aranyi said: “Obviously, he knows that African Americans do not make up a majority of the population in Texas. According to CDC data and several other sources, when comparing vaccination rates in Texas and several other states, the African American community has the lowest rate of vaccination when compared to Latinos, Whites, and Asians. The Texas and nationwide data is crystal clear.”

But as Politifact noted, Patrick “did not seek to change his main point, that Black populations are playing a major role in fueling the present COVID-19 surge. But there’s no evidence to support that.”

I’m sure the lieutenant governor was seeking to gain political points by throwing the onus on Democrats to push vaccination rates among African-Americans. That’s somewhat hypocritical, though, since many Republican governors have resisted mask mandates and been lukewarm about advocating people get the vaccines.

But KFF polling found that among more than a dozen demographic groups broken out, Republicans had the lowest levels of immunization, The Post said.

In Virginia, by the way, Blacks are 20 percent of the population, and Whites comprise 69 percent. Virginia officials say 51 percent of Blacks and 56 percent of Whites in the state have received at least one vaccine dose. (Nearly 322,000 vaccinations didn’t report race or ethnicity.) Blacks accounted for nearly 23 percent of COVID-19 cases in Virginia, while Whites represented nearly 53 percent.

The Texas politician’s comments are particularly vile because certain groups have been targeted for violence simply due to their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation and the like.

I’m moreso attuned to this because I’m reading “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” the 2020 book written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson. It discusses the caste systems of Nazi Germany, the United States and India, and focuses on the difficulties of people struggling on the lowest rungs of those societies.

(Full disclosure: Wilkerson and I attended Howard University in the late 1970s and early 1980s and worked together on the school newspaper.)

She discusses the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which tried to block the flow of Chinese immigrants out West. She notes social economist Gunnar Myrdal’s observation that working-class Whites need the demarcations of caste moreso than upper-class Whites: “‘They are the people likely to stress aggressively that no Negro can ever attain the status of even the lowest White.’”

One chapter is titled, “A Scapegoat to Bear the Sins of the World.” Citing a Jungian psychologist, she notes how a scapegoat caste is required for the collective well-being of the castes above it. “The dominant groups can look to those cast out as the cause of any fate or misfortune, as representing the worst aspects of society.”

Nor is this simply long-ago history.

Armed White men in Glynn County, Georgia, felt it was perfectly fine to track down Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man running in their neighborhood. They suspected he was a burglar – though Arbery wasn’t. Three men now face charges in his February 2020 slaying.

Would they have felt such freedom to pursue had the runner been White – and armed themselves, too?

Former President Donald Trump described COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and used the slur “Kung Flu.” The scapegoating was followed by an increase in attacks on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, not just Chinese, after the pandemic began.

This week, body camera footage from 2019 was finally released showing a White Louisiana State Police officer striking a Black motorist 18 times with a flashlight. Aaron Bowman is heard screaming, “I’m not resisting!” between blows.

The Associated Press reported that Jacob Brown, the White trooper who struck Bowman, “engaged in excessive and unjustifiable actions,” failed to report the use of force to his supervisors and “intentionally mislabeled” his body camera video. He resigned this year.

Brown had amassed 23 use-of-force incidents dating to 2015. Nineteen of those incidents targeted Black people, according to state police records.

Texas’ No. 2 official should’ve known about the history he was indirectly dredging up by suggesting African-Americans weren’t doing their part against COVID-19.

It’s bad enough Dan Patrick lied. It’s despicable he scapegoated an entire race.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]