Talking Points

What the Nicki Minaj-Tucker Carlson connection says about vaccine skepticism

Over the past week, Twitter has been mystified by the apparent convergence of Trinidadian-born rapper Nicki Minaj and Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the risks of the COVID-19 vaccines. The people who were surprised should not have been. 

Black vaccine hesitancy is a real phenomenon. It may not be as big of a barrier to vaccinations as the shot skepticism among conservative whites or as important a contributor to racial disparities as access or economic resources. But Black people have their historical reasons to distrust institutions, with the Tuskegee experiment serving as just one example more powerful than a talk show monologue. 

Before Tucker defended Minaj's call to her nearly 23 million followers to "pray on" their vaccine decision, there was the 2016 Saturday Night Live skit in which Tom Hanks played a MAGA-hat-wearing Donald Trump supporter who excelled on Black Jeopardy. The embedded social commentary was that blue-collar whites and African Americans both had their reasons to question whether the political class really had their best interests in mind in ways that could yield surprising common ground. 

Whatever the differences between these communities in terms of the reasons so many within them haven't gotten their shots, it is a fact that only about 43 percent of black Americans have taken the COVID vaccine. Policies intended to make the lives of the unvaccinated harder are not just going to fall on Trump supporters. They are going to have a disparate impact on these Democratic demographic groups too.

It is something especially important to consider as President Biden, in an attempt to push back against the politicization of the virus, may be inadvertently leaning into it instead. Biden again took swipes at Republican governors who are "doing everything they can to undermine the lifesaving requirements that I've proposed." Biden has a legitimate policy dispute with those governors, and may soon find himself running against Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

But slicing and dicing the pandemic into red states and blue states, to paraphrase Biden's former boss, might be counterproductive. It is surely an oversimplification. It may feel good. But will it get shots into arms? The president should pray on it.