Healthy Skepticism or Paranoia? How Critical Race Theory Could Contribute to Vaccine Hesitancy

With recent news suggesting blacks and Latinos are being vaccinated for COVID-19 at lower rates than whites, many are searching for the causes of this apparent inequity. While structural and systemic racism are the most cited explanations, others speculate that “vaccine hesitancy” within communities of color may also play a role.

For example, a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that black, “Latinx,” and Asian health workers were significantly more skeptical of the vaccine than their white counterparts, and a survey conducted by the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor found that 47% of blacks do not trust vaccines in general, while 50% worried that they could get COVID-19 from the vaccine itself.

Perhaps the most alarming example of this vaccine hesitancy can be found in a recent Vox interview with University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of emergency medicine Eugenia South, who admitted to feeling “hesitant” about a vaccine “developed under a racist president,” and even suggested that we need to “normalize vaccine hesitancy around Covid-19” to give people more time to learn about the role that black scientists played in its development.

As the definition of racism has expanded over the years to also include different outcomes between racial groups, it is easy to attribute all racial disparities in the U.S. to systemic racism alone. But in the rush to blame everything on one causal factor, the role of other potential factors is ignored. For example, when it comes to the issue of vaccine hesitancy in communities of color, I cannot help but wonder if the prevalence of Critical Race Theory (CRT) may partly be responsible. Different strains of this critical theory have gained significant momentum on campuses and over social media, and they all promote very cynical views of Western society, science, and enlightenment thinking in general.

For example, both CRT and Intersectionality (a closely related ideology that combines different identities to form a gradient of oppression) teach that racism is the status quo, and that the scientific method is just a white, Western, male way of knowing. They also reject the possibility of attaining objective knowledge and put emphasis on lived experience and “counter narratives” instead. Over the years, the disciples of these theories have called for the “decolonization” of the sciences, and most recently, have even advocated for a more “equitable” (thus less white supremacist) form of mathematics that would put emphasis on effort rather than accuracy. 2 + 2 = 5? Why not?

But if accurate math is racist and the scientific method is just a “product of Western modernity,” then wouldn’t it stand to reason that anything produced using math or science might also be racist? Following this line of thinking, why would any person of color allow a chemical concoction in their body that was created using the so-called master’s tools? Wouldn’t tribal medicine or a visit to the local shaman be more preferable for those who genuinely wish to decolonize the sciences?

Racialized rhetoric and propaganda disguised as “theory” can have real-world consequences, and the promoters of Critical Race Theory should seriously reflect on how their mischaracterizations of science could exacerbate the paranoia around vaccines. They should also consider what their anti-science and decoloniality would actually look like if put into practice in more vulnerable communities.

One need look no further than the virgin cleansing myths of South Africa and Malawi to see what can happen when indigenous ways of knowing replace Western science and medicine. How any honest academic who genuinely cares about people of color could promote such nonsense is beyond me. And if some American academics truly believe they are living in a nation fundamentally rooted in white supremacy, why would they support epistemologies that emphasize one’s racial and gender identity? Wouldn’t the proliferation of such radical identity politics on campuses just encourage racist white academics to create something similar?

Do CRT’s prominent figures take all the tenets of their discipline seriously or are they using them selectively to promote their own political ambitions and careers? For example, Ibram X. Kendi—who recently made the unfalsifiable claim that the denial of racism is a strong indicator of its existence—came out as a strong advocate for a Covid Racial Data Tracker.

But if 2 + 2 = 4 really perpetuates white supremacy, why even bother counting how many blacks and “Latinx” have been vaccinated? Wouldn’t the request for reliable mathematical data on this topic just reinforce the supposed white fixation on objectivity and accuracy, thereby perpetuating the very system that many CRT advocates wish to dismantle?

You can’t have it both ways: Either Western science and the vaccines it helps create are racist or they are not. And while an honest and measured critique of science is important, the advocates of CRT have conflated the failings of a few scientists in the past with the methodology itself. In doing so, they mischaracterize the nature of the only “way of knowing” that actively attempts to falsify its own hypotheses in an attempt to eliminate the very biases against which critical race theorists claim to be fighting.

Critical Race Theorists should seriously consider how their anti-science rhetoric and theories are contributing to vaccine hesitancy. If they fail to do so, the very people CRT propagandists claim they want to help—vulnerable minority students and communities—will fall victim not only to this poisonous ideology but also COVID-19. In an age when misinformation spreads like wildfire over social media, academics should be even more rigorous and cautious with the rhetoric and theories they employ.


Image: National Cancer Institute, Public Domain

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W. Alexander Bell

W. Alexander Bell is an American expat and PhD student living in Sweden.

One thought on “Healthy Skepticism or Paranoia? How Critical Race Theory Could Contribute to Vaccine Hesitancy”

  1. This isn’t exactly anything new — over 30 years ago, there were similar beliefs about AIDS. For example, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright stated that the government “invent[ed] the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

    It didn’t help that both the Soviet Union and East Germany were actively spreading that as propaganda in the 1980s, but a significant percentage of the Black population — both in the US and in Africa — believed it.

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