“When White folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard my dad say many times, typically when fretting about finances or how the economy disadvantages people who look like us. A more literal manifestation of this idea turned up during the pandemic, when covid-19 devastated Black communities at rates that are still hard to grasp today.
It’s a concept that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has become the face of a political movement defined by medical conspiracy theories, seems to understand. He received endless media coverage after telling a room of reporters at a dinner that the virus might have been “ethnically targeted” to “attack Caucasians and Black people.” And that’s the real way Kennedy will be a spoiler candidate to Joe Biden in 2024 — with Black folks.
I know it’s the vibe to roll your eyes at polling and curse its very existence after 2016, but early numbers are striking. A staggering 28 percent of Black voters surveyed in a recent New York Times-Siena College poll would vote for Kennedy over Biden or Donald Trump if the election were held today. That’s more than double the 13 percent of Black voters who are backing Trump. That same survey found Biden is on track to make history as the first Democratic presidential candidate to get less than 80 percent of the Black vote since the civil rights era.
To be sure, Biden maintains a stronghold with Black folks overall, but the polling trends show Black voters are losing interest in voting — and younger Black voters don’t typically share the same party loyalty as their older friends and family. In a focus group conducted by HIT Strategies, a left-leaning political research firm, seven of the eight non-White men (who all backed Biden in 2020) said they would vote for a third-party option even if it meant Trump would win the election. And that was back in June, just two months after Kennedy had announced his campaign.
Before he switched from running in the Democratic primary to running as an independent, Kennedy got way too much attention from cable news shows and right-wing podcasters alike for his anti-vaccine views. He had about 20 percent support in his brief stint as a Democratic challenger to Biden, and now he lands around 24 percent in a three-way matchup against Biden and Trump, the highest for any third-party candidate since 1996. A new Morning Consult poll found that Kennedy would take equally from both sides across several crucial swing states, contrary to the left’s wishful thinking that he’d appeal only to the right.
Last week, Kennedy’s campaign released a video that should scare the Biden reelection team. The ad — produced by the filmmaker behind the viral “Plandemic” movie that falsely claimed a shadowy group of elites used the coronavirus vaccines to get money and power — is beautifully shot. It is compelling. It makes Kennedy look cool? Like, Batman cool. And I don’t even really like Batman!
It’s smart and slick: The voice of Robert F. Kennedy, RFK Jr.’s father, booms behind slow-motion clips of the younger Kennedy rolling up his sleeves in a high-rise building overlooking Philadelphia. Later he declares his independence from the Democratic Party in front of a sea of people who look a lot like Biden’s 2020 coalition.
Notably, Kennedy doesn’t even mention the word “vaccine” in the ad. Instead he offers a hopeful vision of the future. “Something is stirring in us that says it doesn’t have to be this way,” he says.
New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister has the smartest take on this zeitgeist: Voters seem to care more about what you say than what you’ve done, which boosts Kennedy’s outlandish campaign. Our political system, she wrote, is “built around white patriarchal ideals of who powerful men are supposed to be, and its very limited view of what other kinds of power might look like, has created too irresistible an opportunity for someone with a famous name, a tremendous ego, and a persecution complex.”
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that all Black voters are vaccine conspiracy theorists. But skeptics have something unique in Kennedy, who is a known figure, former litigator and part of a political dynasty, and is saying exactly what they have been feeling — and that’s not something Black voters have gotten from Democratic or Republican leaders lately. Just take it from this guy who was at Kennedy’s campaign relaunch event in Philly and spoke to the New York Times’s “The Daily” podcast: “I was looking around for anybody but Biden. Historically, I’ve pretty much voted Democrat, but I feel that the Democratic Party has taken Black America for granted.”
The roots of Black Americans’ distrust in vaccines and medical professionals goes back centuries, but disparities in health outcomes persist today, even among the richest: Serena Williams almost died during childbirth, as Black women are roughly three times more likely to do than White women. Being skeptical of your health-care providers is what leads some Black folks to conspiracy theories about everything from covid-19 to HIV/AIDS.
Kennedy’s been beating this drum for years. In 2021, he released a documentary called “Medical Racism: The Apartheid,” aimed directly at Black people. Though Kennedy says at the start that he’s not telling people what to do, the film relies heavily on cherry-picked and disproven claims about the dangers of vaccines while trying to connect that to the very real and very racist history of medical malpractice. Medical historian and Yale professor Naomi Rogers, who was featured in the film, said she felt “used” for propaganda and misled about the focus. “I was naive, certainly, in assuming that this was actually a documentary, which I would say it is not. I think that it is an advocacy piece for anti-vaxxers,” Rogers told NPR.
Biden and his administration worked hard during the pandemic to close the racial vaccination gap, and that’s good. But many Black voters are still looking for alternatives, and one of them just so happens to share some of their deep-seated feelings on medicine. President RFK Jr. might not sound too bad to the very folks who put Biden in the White House.