Playing the race card on vaccines

Nation of Islam leader the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, shown in 2007, has cited claims that vaccines are tied to autism.
Nation of Islam leader the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, shown in 2007, has cited claims that vaccines are tied to autism. The Associated Press file

Having trotted out just about every conspiracy theory in the book against the tightening of vaccination laws in California, the opponents of Senate Bill 277 have come up with a new and truly cynical angle – race.

Echoing vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and using forums owned by the Church of Scientology, among other platforms, the head of the Nation of Islam and the group’s Los Angeles leader have spent the last several weeks denouncing the measure, which would eliminate the state’s overly broad “personal belief” exemption to school vaccination.

Last week, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan urged black families in Los Angeles to keep their kids home from school if state lawmakers pass SB 277, citing discredited claims that vaccines are linked to autism, particularly among black male children.

Meanwhile, Nation of Islam Western Regional Minister Tony Muhammad, who has credited Scientology with his emotional recovery after a police beating, appeared with Kennedy at a “town hall” at the church’s South Los Angeles community center. Kennedy claimed that the pharmaceutical industry has corrupted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Muhammad called out legislative Black Caucus members by name who had voted for SB 277.

“If they live in our neighborhoods, we will be in front of their houses throwing eggs,” Muhammad promised. “And we will have the biggest Uncle Tom signs they’ve ever seen.”

All this is their right, and far be it from us to oppose their free speech. Nor will we delve into the strange bedfellow-ship between the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology, whose celebrity members have been prominent among those lobbying against SB 277, though a church spokeswoman said this week that the church has no official position on the bill.

This vaccination fight has transcended all boundaries in setting records for weirdness. But responsible lawmakers shouldn’t be swayed by these last-minute scare tactics, which come as the bill moves toward an Assembly vote Thursday.

SB 277 is sensible. Parents who don’t want their kids to get shots can home-school if they can’t get a medical exemption, and if history is any guide, a whole cottage industry of those exemptions will spring up within weeks of the bill’s passage.

A whole lot of other organizations, including the California Black Health Network, the Charles R. Drew Medical Society and the California State Conference of the NAACP, think it makes sense to vaccinate children – of all races – against deadly diseases like polio and pertussis.

And as sincere as Kennedy and his allies may be in their concern about the pharmaceutical industry and its influence, the vast majority of mainstream scientists dispute the science they keep citing. The power of Big Pharma may be a real issue, but it’s not the issue here.

What is truly unfortunate is the use of race to undermine public health in California. This country has real racial issues. We don’t need to gin up conspiracies – or keep more kids home from school.

Whatever his reasons for trying to kill a bill that, if anything, would improve public health in the community he claims to care for, Farrakhan should rethink his position. There are no color lines when it comes to contagious diseases.