Over the past two weeks, protesters have flooded the California state capitol to oppose a bill that restricts the medical exemptions parents have been using to avoid vaccinating their children. The outcry comes four years after state lawmakers eliminated personal-belief and religious exemptions for public-school attendees, which were the most common workarounds used to get kids enrolled without having them vaccinated. The anti-vax movement has been ridiculed widely. Critics lambast its adherents for willfully exposing other people’s children to preventable diseases — like the measles — often based on dubious medical beliefs, like that vaccines cause autism. But amid their subsequent claims to victimhood and oppression, anti-vaxxers had largely avoided marching in major cities singing “We Shall Overcome” and chanting, “No segregation, no discrimination, education for all!” while carrying signs that read, “Welcome to Nazifornia.”
“This is misappropriation of a movement [the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s] that really is not over and proves to be challenging to overcome,” Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, a Los Angeles Democrat and member of the California Legislative Black Caucus, told Politico of the mostly white women protesters’ antics in Sacramento this week. “The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.”
Increased skepticism about vaccines — and fear of their alleged side effects — has since 2001 helped quadruple the percentage of American children under 2 years old who haven’t had any, according to the Washington Post. Research shows that in California, personal-belief exemptions were claimed overwhelmingly by well-off white people before being outlawed. This is supported by both anecdotal evidence and news reports, including the notorious 2014 Hollywood Reporter investigation that uncovered school vaccination rates in several of Los Angeles’s whiter and wealthier neighborhoods, including Beverly Hills and Malibu, comparable to those in South Sudan, one of the world’s newest and least-developed economies.
But the California protests, which were in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s signing Senate Bill 276 into law on Monday, were equally notable for following a pattern in which white Americans equate their milder and often totally unrelated struggles to those endured by black Americans. People ranging from CNN anchor Chris Cuomo to former Maine governor Paul LePage have likened their personal travails — being called “Fredo” and “racist,” respectively — to black people’s being called “nigger.” Editorial cartoonist Glenn McCoy famously equated U.S. secretary of Education Betsy De Vos’s testy Senate-confirmation process with Ruby Bridges desegregating an all-white New Orleans public school in 1964. At the root of this pattern is an inability to distinguish the wages of broad inequality from those of personal insult. Those who indulge the comparisons think the best way to illustrate the seriousness of their cause is to compare it to far more serious ones. But they succeed mostly in persuading observers of the opposite — that in the grand scheme, what they’re going through really isn’t that bad.