Everyone I know or am evenly dimly aware of now falls into one of these two categories. There is no middle ground, and no easy way to avoid the question, especially during a holiday like Thanksgiving. I count myself firmly in the vaccinated group, forced to keep my distance from the nearly 20 percent of American adults who still haven’t received a single dose. I don’t like the firm lines I’ve had to draw between myself and unvaccinated others. But I don’t have a choice; this is about survival. Beyond wanting to protect my own health and the health of those in my immediate circle, I simply can’t entertain anyone’s refusal to keep all of us — our society — safe.
Week in and week out, CDC update by CDC update, vaccine resistance reminds us that Americans today take the notion of interdependence less and less seriously at precisely the moment they need to be doing the opposite. Of all the forms that radical individualism takes these days — people arming themselves to the teeth to “protect their freedoms” comes to mind — not vaccinating has become the most consistent and the deadliest. To me, it’s also the most bewildering. The pedestrian nature of getting a shot that’s overwhelmingly been proven safe and efficacious, not to mention free, is what makes refusing to do it so petty and so insidious. So un-American.
I do not use that word lightly. For my whole life, I’ve maintained a stubborn willingness to believe in an America, even a small one, that sees itself as working toward becoming a single people. As an African American, I’ve always felt outside the possessive pronouns of “we” and “our” and “us,” yet that didn’t make me indifferent — to the contrary, it made me more passionate about claiming my rightful place in it all, about fighting to become an equally considered part of the American “we.”
But for the first time, that passion is waning. The vaccine avoidance that’s steadily hardened into an American norm is building in me a sense of loss that’s turning out to be deeper and more sustained than I expected. In Thanksgivings past, I always assumed a critical mass of Americans was searching for connection as much as I was: In my mind, we were not one people, but we wanted to be. The arc of interdependence was long, but it was always bending in the right direction. I no longer believe this.
The most disorienting thing about the new vaccination binary is how it’s nearly superseding the racial binary of Black and white that’s framed my view of America, and my view of its moral sense, my whole life. There’s no question that race and racism deeply divide and threaten the coherence of our society. But to not draw the lines of vaccinated and non, to simply agree to disagree with the vaccine-resistant, is life-threatening in an even more immediate way than racism is.
People of all colors are on the wrong side of this line. It’s more than ironic — to me, it’s tragic — that the vaccine resisters are not just MAGA types, but also members of my own Black community. The number of neighbors, family and friends I have who are unvaccinated isn’t high, but it’s enough to feel like a betrayal. It’s enough to erode the “we” of the Black collective — a critical subset of the bigger American “we” — that’s long hewed to a pact to look out for each other’s welfare because America wouldn’t or wasn’t interested. To not vaccinate, and therefore to not protect the lives of other Black folks, is to break that pact, with predictably terrible results: Black Americans, already overrepresented in a whole array of bad health outcomes, are being hospitalized and dying of Covid at higher rates than white Americans.
To those who like to cite the Tuskegee experiment begun in the 1930s as reason to reject the Covid vaccine now: That is not this. Tuskegee was a medical experiment that maliciously used Black men as guinea pigs, refusing them treatment that would have saved their lives. The Covid vaccine was the product of public health emergency and was developed in record time presumably without race in mind at all, which, in a certain context, is a good thing.
Maybe it sounds odd, but lately I’ve found a degree of hope about American interconnectedness not in reality but in fiction: the Marvel and DC movies. In this enduringly popular multiverse are superheroes who are Black and white, fantastic individuals with divergent storylines, but who live and die as a group. In the Avengers and the Justice League, true heroism belongs not to any one character or to any one act, or non-act, but to all of them simultaneously. And that fantastic but ordinary heroism of simply coming together, as years of sequels and prequels and various enterprises to save the world from evil individualism make clear, never ends. Even in the comic book world’s darkest moments — especially in its darkest moments — the heroism of interconnectedness is always in the air.
Yes, it’s pop-culture fantasy that hardly suffices for the kind of progress we need right now; in some ways, it’s probably a distraction. Still, I believe our enthusiastic embrace of these comic-book narratives, and the idealism embedded in them, is real. Many of us still want to be heroes; I’d like to think we’re just confused about what that looks like. Vaccinations are a good place to start.