RFK Jr. uses systematic racism to spread anti vaxx message

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08 Jun 2021, 6:22 am

Anti-Vaccine Film Targeted To Black Americans Spreads False Information

When a filmmaker asked medical historian Naomi Rogers to appear in a new documentary, the Yale professor didn't blink. She had done these "talking head" interviews many times before.

She assumed her comments would end up in a straightforward documentary that addressed some of the most pressing concerns of the pandemic, such as the legacy of racism in medicine and how that plays into current mistrust in some communities of color. The subject of vaccines was also mentioned, but the focus wasn't clear to Rogers.

The director wanted something more polished than a Zoom call, so a well-outfitted camera crew arrived at Rogers' home in Connecticut in the fall. They showed up wearing masks and gloves. Before the interview, they cleaned the room thoroughly. Then they spent about an hour interviewing Rogers. She discussed her research and in particular controversial figures like Dr. James Marion Sims, who was influential in the field of gynecology, but performed experimental surgery on enslaved Black women during the 1800s, without anesthesia.

"We were talking about issues of racism and experimentation, and they seemed to be handled appropriately," Rogers recalls. At the time, there were few indications that anything was out of the ordinary. Except one. During a short break, she asked who else was being interviewed for the film. The producer's response struck Rogers as curiously vague.

They said 'Well, there's 'a guy' in New York, and we talked to 'somebody in New Jersey, and California,' " Rogers told NPR. "I thought it's so odd that they wouldn't tell me who these people were."

It wasn't until March of this year that Rogers would stumble upon the answer.

She received an email from a group, called Children's Health Defense — prominent in the anti-vaccine movement — promoting its new film, "Medical Racism: The New Apartheid."

When she clicked on the link and began watching the 57-minute film, she was shocked to discover this was the movie she had sat down for back in October.

"I was naïve, 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 says. "I'm still very angry. I feel that I was used."

The free, online film is the latest effort by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the founder of Children's Health Defense. (He's the son of the former U.S. Attorney General Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, and nephew of President John F. Kennedy.) With this film, Kennedy and his allies in the anti-vaccine movement resurface and promote disproven claims about the dangers of vaccines, but it's aimed squarely at a specific demographic: Black Americans.

The film draws a line from the very real and disturbing history of racism and atrocities in the medical field — like the Tuskegee syphilis study — to interviews with anti-vaccine activists who warn communities of color to be suspicious of modern day vaccines.

At one point in "Medical Racism," viewers are warned that "in black communities something is very sinister" and "the same thing that happened in the 1930s during the eugenics movement" is happening again.

There is lengthy discussion of the thoroughly disproven link between autism and vaccines. For example, the film references a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the MMR vaccine and autism rates as evidence that African American children are being particularly harmed, but in reality the study did not conclude that African Americans are at increased risk of autism because of vaccination.

The movie then displays a chart claiming to use that same CDC data — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request — to make a connection between vaccinating Black children and autism risk. The findings in the chart closely resemble another study sometimes mentioned by anti-vaccine activists, but the medical journal later retracted the study, because of "undeclared competing interests on the part of the author" and "concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis," (That study's author was also a paid independent contractor for Kennedy's group as of 2020 and sits on its board of directors.)

The film also brings up a 2014 study from the Mayo Clinic that showed Somali Americans and African Americans have a more robust immune response to the rubella vaccine than Caucasians and Hispanic Americans. One of those interviewed in Kennedy's film then asks, "So if you have that process that could be caused by vaccines, why wouldn't there be a link between vaccines and developmental delays?"

But the study's own author and leading vaccine researcher Dr. Gregory Poland says this conjecture is not accurate.

For her part, Yale professor Naomi Rogers only appears for about 14 seconds in the film. Her quotes are accurate. But her remarks are embedded in a wider narrative that she had "enormous problems with" — namely that the anti-vaccine movement is heroically engaged in a new civil rights campaign, one meant to stop experimentation on the Black community.

Rogers says the film uses many of the ideas that she holds "passionately, like health disparities, fighting racism in health, working against discrimination, and it's been twisted for the purposes of this anti-vax movement".

Another credible expert from mainstream medicine also appears in the film: Dr. Oliver Brooks, the immediate past president of the National Medical Association. The NMA is the largest organization representing African American physicians in the U.S.

Brooks says he agreed to be in the film because he wanted to provide balance, but, after seeing it, he now regrets doing the interview.

"The crux of the documentary is generally don't get vaccinated," Brooks told NPR in a recent interview.

The movie begins with a string of ominous news clips about the pandemic and the COVID vaccines, and includes short interviews with people of color who talk about COVID-19 being "propaganda" and why they don't trust the vaccine. Robert F Kennedy Jr. also appears to offer a warning to viewers about vaccines: "Don't listen to me. Don't listen to Tony Fauci. Hey, and don't listen to your doctor."

In addition to Kennedy, other producers helped make and market the film, including a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam, and a wealthy entrepreneur who recently made headlines when a private school he co-founded in Miami prohibited teachers who got the COVID-19 vaccine from returning to the classroom.

Children's Health Defense made one of the film's co-producers, Curtis Cost, available to talk with NPR. He is a longtime anti-vaccine activist, who has previously claimed that "viruses do not cause anything, it's a hoax, it's a myth, so whether you are talking about HIV virus, the flu virus or any other virus, does not cause anything."

Cost says the film does not explicitly tell people to refuse the COVID vaccine, but it "goes all the way to the present experimentations and bad things have been done by the medical establishment in America and in Africa and other parts of the world."

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