Is dystopian too strong a word for this, from Phil Scott, Vermont’s Republican governor?
If you or anyone in your household identifies as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC), including anyone with Abenaki or other First Nations heritage, all household members who are 16 years or older can sign up to get a vaccine! Get yours at ⤵️ https://t.co/hVgb9rzQPn
— Governor Phil Scott (@GovPhilScott) April 1, 2021
The problem with this vaccine prioritization scheme is not so much practical as it is a matter of principle. Racial preferences in vaccine distribution during a pandemic seem like a lab-made recipe for fomenting racial discord, balkanizing American society, and sowing distrust in our institutions. The fact that shots are being made available to BIPOC only — a strange and seemingly arbitrary category of people with completely different life experiences — isn’t likely to have major public-health consequences. It should be expected, however, to have a number of deleterious downstream consequences, in addition to just being flat-out wrong.
First, it encourages Americans of all races to think of themselves as being primarily racial creatures, with interests that are not individual, familial, or national but mostly based on the color of their skin. We can expect such a mindset to not only hamper individual success and happiness but undermine our national solidarity and goals, as well as lead to jockeying for political power among racial groups.
Second, it establishes a precedent for race-based prioritization in other areas of life. If government is willing to establish a racial-preference system for vaccines, what’s to stop them from doing so in other areas of life? Already, our higher-education system suffers from this affliction. Applying Vermont’s logic, why shouldn’t public education at the primary or secondary level be explicitly favoring students of certain skin colors in the classroom? Should Bernie Sanders get his way, will a care-rationing, single-payer system use racial preferences in determining who will have quicker access to chemotherapy treatments or knee replacements? Once the momentum of the Overton window begins moving in this direction, it’s difficult to say where it will settle.
Last, I suspect that a vast majority of Americans — discounting the denizens of Twitter — instinctually understand this to be an axiomatically regressive and wrong-headed idea. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2019 found that 73 percent of Americans don’t believe race should play any kind of factor in college admissions. That includes 62 percent of African Americans, 65 percent of Hispanics, and 63 percent of Democrats. One can only imagine the majorities that would oppose a state-imposed racial-preference system in medicine.
America still has a ways to go if it is to become a land of perfectly equal opportunity. Few would contend that we’re already there. But Vermont’s racial-preference scheme for vaccine prioritization is plainly a step backward in this regard — one that should leave Americans wondering who exactly these people governing us are, and how their moral compasses could be this broken.