The Democratic embrace of vaccine mandates is running into resistance from some prominent Black athletes and activists, an unforeseen political side effect with implications for the party’s grip on a crucial voting bloc ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
A bevy of NBA stars has spoken out against the COVID-19 vaccination requirements. Golden State Warriors veteran Draymond Green defended vaccine-hesitant teammate Andrew Wiggins by arguing that mandating the shot “goes against everything that America stands for.”
“I think you have to honor people’s feelings and their own personal beliefs, and I think that’s been lost when it comes to vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Mr. Green said Friday at a press conference. “You say we live in the land of the free. Well, you’re not giving anyone freedom because you’re making people do something, essentially.”
His comments resonated with Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, who tweeted that he “couldn’t have said it any better.” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and a foe of federal COVID-19 mandates, retweeted the video clip with an applause emoji.
Since then, Wiggins has been vaccinated. He confirmed Monday that he had received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, although he said he felt “forced” to comply.
The NBA reportedly plans to dock the pay of players who miss games because of vaccine status. Wiggins’ team is based in Democratic-dominated San Francisco, which has some of the toughest mandates in the nation. Chase Center arena, home of the Warriors, requires vaccinations for those 12 and older.
“The only options were to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA,” Wiggins said on ESPN. “It was a tough decision. Hopefully, it works out in the long run and in 10 years I’m still healthy.”
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, invoked the NBA as he blasted Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra at a hearing last week for mocking unvaccinated Americans who claim natural immunity as “flat earthers.” He noted that their numbers include Orlando Magic star Jonathan Isaac.
“In a free country, maybe I ought to be able to make that decision,” Mr. Paul said. “Instead, you’ve chosen to travel the country calling people like Jonathan Isaac and others, myself included, flat-earthers. We find that very insulting. It goes against the science.”
Such displays of Republican solidarity with prominent Black athletes threaten to create headaches for Democrats as they crack down on the unvaccinated, who are mostly White in terms of numbers but disproportionately Black in terms of percentages.
A Sept. 20 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis based on data from 43 states found that 45% of the Black population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, behind the 49% for Hispanics, 53% for Whites and 69% for Asian Americans.
“One of the elephants in the room with the whole vaccination debate is that the media portrayal of the ‘unvaxxed’ is these rural Trump supporters that are just too pig-ignorant to get vaccinated,” said Wilfred Reilly, an associate political science professor at Kentucky State University. “The reality is that the least-vaccinated group is Black Americans.”
President Biden’s sweeping mandates for health care workers, federal contractors and private companies with more than 100 employees have already cost favorability among Black voters, according to a Morning Consult Political Intelligence poll released Sept. 22.
The survey found that Mr. Biden’s net approval rating dropped by 12 percentage points among Black voters after his Sept. 9 announcement, fueled by a 17-point dive among unvaccinated Black voters.
“The rise in negative views came almost entirely from unvaccinated Black voters: 38 percent of Black voters who say they have not received their vaccine disapprove of Biden’s job performance, up 11 points since before he announced the mandate, while 56 percent approve, down 6 points over that time frame,” the Morning Consult analysis said.
Mr. Biden’s rating on his handling of the pandemic fell among voters overall after he announced the mandates, from 52% approval to 49% disapproval.
The drop-off was a “stark warning sign for Democrats ahead of next year’s midterms,” the poll analysis said.
“While Black voters, who helped push Biden over the top against President Donald Trump in key states last year, are unlikely to abandon the Democratic Party en masse to back Republicans on the ballot next year, low turnout from the group could have dire consequences for Democrats in Congress, who already face an early enthusiasm gap,” Morning Consult said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are trumpeting their opposition to the government restrictions. Republican governors and the Republican National Committee have threatened to sue to block Mr. Biden’s “unconstitutional actions and authoritarian decrees.”
Mr. Cruz cheered James last week. He said he has been vaccinated, but “I think everyone has their own choice to do what they feel is right for themselves and their families.”
Mr. Cruz tweeted: “I’ve never said this before: I agree with @KingJames.”
Pushing back was NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who argued in a Monday post on Substack that unvaccinated players should not be able to play. More than 90% of NBA players are fully vaccinated, the league said.
“On the surface, it appears that Draymond and LeBron are arguing for the American ideal of individual freedom of choice. But they offer no arguments in support of it, nor do they define the limits of when one person’s choice is harmful to the community,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They are merely shouting, ‘I’m for freedom.’ We’re all for freedom, but not at the expense of others nor if it damages the country.”
‘You should have a choice’
Nowhere are the mandates more stringent than in staunch Democratic enclaves such as San Francisco and New York City, where vaccines are mandatory for those 12 and older at indoor restaurants, bars, nightclubs and indoor arenas.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that students must be vaccinated to attend school in person once the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval of COVID-19 shots for middle and high school students.
Mr. Newsom has reason to believe such mandates are popular, at least in California. Last month, he beat back a recall effort with a campaign warning that his defeat would result in “an anti-vaccine Trump Republican.”
New York may be a different story. Two weeks ago, Black Lives Matter Greater New York, led by Hawk Newsome, held a protest after a brawl between Black customers and the hostess at Carmine’s Italian restaurant involving proof of vaccination.
The group, which is not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Global Network, has called for abolishing the city’s vaccine requirements. It argues that the mandates affect Black residents disproportionately and says the rules are racist.
NYC Health’s latest figures show that 40% of the city’s Black residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 54% of Hispanics, 50% of Whites and 77% of Asian Americans.
In a rare show of political camaraderie, the left-wing Mr. Newsome and conservative pundit Candace Owens, who are both Black, unloaded on the mandates last week during her Daily Wire show on YouTube.
“They’ve made these vaccine passports freedom papers, to where police, to where business owners, to where people who do not like Black people can use these vaccine passports as a way to harass and oppress Black people,” Mr. Newsome said.
Mr. Newsome said he is unvaccinated, as is Ms. Owens, but he stressed in a video posted online that “I’m not telling you not to get it. I’m just saying you should have a choice.”
The racial gap in vaccinations has narrowed. Of vaccines administered from Sept. 7-20, 23% went to Hispanic people, who make up 17% of the population, and 14% went to Black people, who represent 12%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“White people account for the largest share of people who remain unvaccinated, but Black and Hispanic people are less likely than their White counterparts to have received a vaccine, leaving them at increased risk, which may lead to widening disparities going forward and limit the nation’s recovery,” the analysis said.
An Aug. 24 peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Plos One found that “Black and Hispanic individuals were less willing than Whites to receive the vaccine” and planned to delay vaccination for more extended periods than Whites.
“Black respondents were less likely to want the COVID-19 vaccine at all compared with Whites and Hispanics, and mistrust of the vaccine among Black respondents was significantly higher than other racial/ethnic groups,” said the study by MiOra researchers Katherine Kricorian and Karin Turner.
The reasons given include lingering distrust of government medical authorities after unethical research such as the Tuskegee syphilis study from 1932 to 1972.
“Institutional racism and historical inequities in health care may also play a role in vaccine hesitancy among African Americans and other people of color,” Johns Hopkins Medicine said in a Feb. 10 post. “Incidents of the medical establishment endangering the health or betraying the trust of Black patients and research participants have complicated the relationship between the medical establishment and these communities.”
Ms. Owens said on her show that “I’ve been beating the drum about these vaccine mandates and about how unconstitutional they are, but also just reminiscent of atrocities that have happened in the past.”
Another possibility: Those in the anti-mandate camp, no matter what their race, probably get most of their news somewhere other than the broadcast networks and CNN, Mr. Reilly said.
“I really think the source has to be media. If you watch either Fox or Black media, you’re not getting this level of panic,” Mr. Reilly said. “If you’re watching mainstream center-left media, there is a great deal of focus on what are to some extent unusual COVID-19 situations like ‘young child dies of COVID’ or ‘alleged COVID denier dies of COVID.’”
As a result, he said, “you get a situation where the people who have not taken the vaccine are not very afraid,” particularly those who are young and healthy, including professional athletes.
“That doesn’t mean you’re not going to be vaccinated, but it does mean there might be a little less panic than there is among many of the people I see in urban upper-middle-class life that are double-vaccinated and walk around in face shields,” Mr. Reilly said.
Although Wiggins is now vaccinated, he said he still has concerns about the shot.
“If you want to work in society today, then I guess they made the rules of what goes in your body and what you do,” he said on CNN after Monday’s game. “Hopefully, there’s a lot of people out there that are stronger than me and keep fighting, stand for what they believe, and hopefully it works out for them.”