Anti-Vaccine Film Targets Black People, Spreads False Information

“I think that it is an advocacy piece for anti-vaxxers,” Yale professor of history and medicine Naomi Rogers told NPR. Rogers had been interviewed for a film entitled Medical Racism: The New Apartheid by a prominent anti-vaccine group called Children’s Health Defense without realizing how her words would be used. 

“I was naive, certainly, in assuming that this was actually a documentary, which I would say it is not,” Rogers said. “I’m still very angry. I feel that I was used.” 

It wasn’t until the film was released in March of this year that Rogers found out that the film was spreading misinformation and targeted Black Americans’ history of medical racism. In her segment of the film, Rogers discussed her research and figures like Dr. James Marion Sims whose experimentation practices included performing surgery on enslaved Black women in the 1800s without anesthesia. 

“We were talking about issues of racism and experimentation, and they seemed to be handled appropriately,” Rogers said.

She told the outlet that filmmakers approached her to participate in the film and that nothing seemed out of the ordinary until they wouldn’t tell her who else was to appear in it. 

“They said, ‘Well, there’s ‘a guy’ in New York, and we talked to ‘somebody in New Jersey, and California,’” Rogers explained. “I thought it’s so odd that they wouldn’t tell me who these people were.”

Once the film came out, she found out the group is spearheaded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. –– the son of former US Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy–– and his anti-vaccine group. The film, however, is pointedly targeted to Black Americans and spreads misinformation about vaccines, displaying debunked data. 

Rogers appears in the film for about 14 seconds and says while her quotes were accurate, they are spliced together in a narrative that she has “enormous problems with.” 

Initial vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans, experts said, stemmed from both the real history of medical racism in the country and its continued impact on people. The rate of Black Americans who received the vaccine is behind other groups, in part due to a lack of access, though misinformation like that found in the film, experts say, doesn’t help. 

“The crux of the documentary is generally don’t get vaccinated,” Dr. Oliver Brooks, former president of the National Medical Association, the nation’s largest organization representing Black doctors, told NPR. Brooks was also featured in the film, and stated that he agreed to the interview to provide perspective. 

“There is an understandable concern in the African American community regarding vaccines –– however, in the end, my position is you look past those, have an understanding of those, and still get vaccinated…. That nuance was not felt or presented in the documentary,” Brooks said. 

Kennedy was banned from Instagram for the misinformation he spread on the platform, though he still has active Facebook and Twitter accounts, though organizers have labeled his group as a source of misinformation. 

Photo: Getty Images

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