No, ‘Jesus’ Won’t Save You: Black Communities and Deadly Vaccine Hesitancy

“You got to be delusional to take this poison.”

“Let the wyt (white) folk have that. WE don’t want it.”

“Only Jesus can save us [from Covid].”

These were three of the choice YouTube comments left in response to a BNC news video of the recently relased pro-vaccination song “Vax That Thang Up” by rapper Juvenile. The “controversial” song seeks to counter vaccine hesitancy among young African Americans.

Entering the abyss of YouTube comments is always a time-sucking crapshoot. But as Covid and the new Delta variant ravage under-vaccinated Black communities, YouTube chatter is an important window onto unfiltered anti-vax perspectives. In state after state, the march of Black death from Covid outstrips the Black vaccination rate. In L.A. County, fewer than 30% of young African Americans under 29 are vaccinated, while Black Angelenos are three times as likely as whites to get Covid, require hospitalization, and die from the disease. In New York, only 33% of African Americans are vaccinated. In Washington DC, African Americans have received 43% of vaccinations, while they make up 56% of Covid cases, 71% of Covid deaths, and 46% of the total population. Nationwide, many mass vaccination sites have closed due to low demand, despite the fact that the more deadly Delta variant’s viral load is 1000 times higher than the alpha version of Covid.

Prior to the emergence of the Delta variant, Covid rates had plunged for every other group besides African Americans. Granted, low Black vaccination rates continue to be driven by deep skepticism about long histories of racist medical experimentation on Black bodies as well as access disparities that disproportionately impact poor, low income, elderly, disabled, and unhoused African Americans. But this perfect storm has also been fueled by the resurgence of an anti-vax movement cosigned by the Nation of Islam (NOI) and every other right wing conspiracy theorist quack on the Internet. As daily reports of rising Covid hospitalizations and deaths mount, social media and the anti-vax movement have gained momentum in African American communities vulnerable to the religious demagoguery of individuals like the NOI’s Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Farrakhan has argued that vaccines are a fiendish population control plot specifically designed to destroy Black folks. The Nation’s website features an ominous collage of a screaming Black child, outsized horror movie-style needles, and an elderly Black man being injected by a white male. “Don’t let them vaccinate you with their history of treachery through vaccines and medication”, the website beseeches. The NOI has a long history of opposing vaccines, stretching all the way back to leader Elijah Muhammed’s opposition to the polio vaccine in the 1960s. In 2017, NOI spokesperson Tony Muhammed began railing against vaccines as part of an insidious CDC plot to cause autism in Black boys. Although the connection between autism and vaccines has been roundly debunked, their stance precipitated a strange bedfellows’ alliance between the NOI and notorious anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This spring, Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense organization released a documentary entitled “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid”. The documentary exploits African American fears of racist medical experimentation and abuse, while deceptively enlisting pro-vaccine medical experts to bolster its case.

One of the biggest canards in the documentary is the suggestion that “the anti-vaccine movement is heroically engaged in a new civil rights campaign, meant to stop experimentation on the Black community.” This boldfaced lie is akin to social and medical malpractice. The cold reality is that between 97% to 99% of patients dying from Covid are unvaccinated. Skepticism about racist medical legacies should not be a barrier to common sense and the overwhelming evidence that being unvaccinated is equivalent to playing Russian roulette on the Titanic. Ultimately, as infections continue to ramp up among the unvaccinated during the summer, low vaccination rates in vulnerable communities of color will have tragic consequences for the families of children returning to school (some states in the South and Midwest are not even requiring masks for K-12 students). And the pandemic has overwhelmingly demonstrated that extended Black and Latinx families who live in close quarters are the most susceptible to infection, hospitalization, and death. In addition, Covid transmission from vaccinated folks is higher in communities with low vaccination rates.

So, no, “Jesus” will not save you from Covid, nor will bashing the scores of Black doctors, scientists, educators, activists, and average folks who are knocking on doors, conducting workshops, having one-on-one conversations, and advocating for vaccination as a fundamental human right and Black community imperative. At the end of the day, the Covid vaccines are not a colonial conspiracy to take out Black folks (as Internet nonsense has insisted) but the tragic anti-vax propaganda and reckless hesitancy that are contributing to mass Black death could very well be construed as one.

Writer and educator, Founder of WLP, Author of Humanists in the Hood, the novel White Nights, Black Paradise and the speculative fiction podcast Sleep Dystopias