Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, is taking flak from Democrats for his recent comments about COVID-19 vaccination rates among African Americans. While his remarks, taken literally, were inaccurate, his general point—that vaccine hesitancy is not limited to white Republicans—was correct, as even the fact checkers who criticized him acknowledged. At the same time, that problem is indisputably bigger in the GOP than it is in the other major party.
In a Thursday night interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Patrick complained that "the Democrats like to blame Republicans" for spurning vaccination. But in fact, he claimed, African Americans are "the biggest group" of unvaccinated people in "most states," and "over 90 percent of them vote for Democrats." His conclusion: "It's up to the Democrats," just as "it's up to Republicans," to "try to get as many people vaccinated" as possible.
Since blacks represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population, it would be quite surprising if they accounted for "the biggest group" of unvaccinated Americans. As of late July, according to KFF polling data, whites accounted for 57 percent of that group. Still, it is true that blacks are less likely to be vaccinated than whites. As of August 17, 40 percent of blacks had received at least one dose, compared to 45 percent of Hispanics, 50 percent of whites and 67 percent of Asian Americans. (Those numbers represent shares of the "total population" in each group, including children who are not yet eligible for vaccines; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71 percent of Americans 12 or older have been at least partly vaccinated.)
The picture is similar in Texas. "There are an estimated 5.6 million white people who are eligible and unvaccinated," The Texas Tribune reports, "while the same figure is 1.9 million for Black people, who make up a far smaller part of the overall population." About 44 percent of black Texans have been at least partly vaccinated, compared to 53 percent of whites, 57 percent of Latinos, and 78 percent of Asians. The corresponding figures for full vaccination are about 29 percent, 37 percent, 40 percent, and 59 percent, respectively.
In a Facebook statement he posted on Friday, Patrick said he was alluding to these disparities during his Fox News interview. "Federal and State data clearly indicate that Black vaccination rates are significantly lower than White or Hispanic rates," he said. "Democrats continue to play politics with peoples' lives, pandering to rather than serving certain constituencies. Republican leadership will continue to encourage vaccination without mandates in all populations."
A charitable viewer might conclude that Patrick was making a valid point, although he phrased it inartfully. Democrats, of course, were not inclined to be charitable.
"The Lt. Governor's statements are offensive and should not be ignored," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted on Thursday night. Turner also retweeted Vox writer Aaron Rupar's gloss on Patrick's comments, which said he "blames unvaccinated Black people for Covid spread in his state," along with former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro's description of that position as "reprehensible."
State Sen. Borris Miles (D–Houston) likewise said "Lt. Gov. Patrick now blames the current surge in COVID on African Americans," adding: "Using minorities as a scapegoat is nothing new for Republicans. This is uninformed, racist rhetoric, and it will not be tolerated."
You can judge for yourself whether that is a fair reading of Patrick's remarks. But it certainly is true that Patrick, like his Democratic detractors, is more interested in scoring partisan points than in painting an accurate picture of vaccine resistance.
In addition to misstating his point, Patrick glossed over the huge partisan divide in vaccination rates. As of late July, according to a KFF survey of adults, 86 percent of Democrats were at least partly vaccinated, compared to 54 percent of Republicans. That gap is much bigger than the difference between blacks and whites. Furthermore, unvaccinated Republicans are more likely than unvaccinated Democrats to say they "definitely" won't be inoculated. Unvaccinated whites likewise are more firmly opposed to inoculation than unvaccinated blacks.
So although it is true that Democrats, like Republicans, have a vaccine hesitancy problem, it is clearly not true that their problem is of a similar magnitude. Furthermore, the deep-seated resistance to vaccination among Republicans is reflected in the way that Republican politicians like Patrick talk about the issue.
"We're encouraging people who want to take it to take it," Patrick told Ingraham, but Democrats are "doing nothing for the African-American community." If people already "want to take" a vaccine, they do not need much encouragement; the people who don't want the vaccine are the ones who need to be persuaded. While Patrick accuses Democrats of "pandering" to "certain constituencies," he is doing the same thing.
Even former President Donald Trump, who has himself been vaccinated and can legitimately take credit for the surprisingly fast development of COVID-19 vaccines, seems to be cowed by the prevalence of anti-vaxxers in his party. At a rally in Alabama on Saturday, Trump delicately introduced the subject, only to be booed by his audience when he recommended vaccination.
"We developed three vaccines…in nine months," Trump bragged. "And it's great. And you know what? I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You gotta do what you have to do. But I recommend taking the vaccines. I did it. It's good. Take the vaccines."
When that line elicited an audibly negative response from the crowd, Trump again emphasized that vaccination is a matter of individual choice. "You got your freedoms," he said. "But I happened to take the vaccine. If it doesn't work, you'll be the first to know. OK? I'll call up Alabama, I'll say, 'Hey, you know what?' But it is working. But you do have your freedoms you have to keep. You have to maintain that."
This probably counts as Trump's strongest endorsement of COVID-19 vaccination to date. But the anti-vaccine sentiment among his supporters still caused him to vacillate and unnecessarily qualify his recommendation, even allowing that they might be right in thinking vaccination "doesn't work." It should be possible for Republican leaders to forthrightly say they oppose a general vaccine mandate but nevertheless believe vaccination is the best way to beat the pandemic and return to normal life. Their difficulty in clearly delivering that message confirms that, notwithstanding Patrick's implication, vaccine resistance is a much bigger issue in the GOP than it is in the opposing party.