Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey said during an interview Tuesday that New York City’s mandate requiring residents to show proof of vaccination before entering indoor spaces is akin to showing freedom papers.
“We know that those types of things are difficult to enforce when it comes to vaccine,” Janey said, according to the Boston Herald, adding that, “there’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers — whether we talking about this from the standpoint of, you know, as a way to, after — during slavery, post-slavery, as recent as, you know, what the immigrant population has to go through.”
Janey is catching some flak for this and later clarified her comments in a series of tweets, saying that we must recognize the history of marginalized groups not getting access to public health and economic recovery. She added that there are no plans to require business sector mandates, but her administration is working with businesses and public health experts to monitor the situation. The city has seen increases in COVID-19 causes because of the Delta variant, but Janey said those numbers are well below the threshold that have informed public policy decisions.
New York City is the first municipality to mandate proof of vaccination for indoor activities.
Boston is in the middle of a mayoral race, so this was an especially good time for her opponents to legitimately question her comments. Here are some of them, per the Boston Herald:
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, one of Janey’s rivals in the mayoral race, said in a statement, “When we are combating a deadly virus & vaccine hesitancy, this kind of rhetoric is dangerous. Showing proof of vaccination is not slavery or birtherism. We are too close to give ground to COVID. Science is science. It’s pretty simple — Vax up and mask up.”
City Council President Pro Tempore Matt O’Malley didn’t take a direct shot at Janey, but, after her comments, tweeted a New York Times story about the NYC move, and said, “If we want to get serious about addressing vaccine hesitancy … We should be doing this in Boston.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who’s also running for mayor, said, “Anyone in a position of leadership should be using that position to build trust in vaccines.”
Now, if you feel she should impose the mandate, that is a governance choice and is well-within bounds of critique. That is where criticisms of Janey should stop.
She wasn’t wrong for expressing fears of how mandates could impact people of color. In New York City, Black men worried that facial coverings could invite racial profiling from cops; research shows that cops are still stopping and frisking people of color at disproportionate rates after a federal judge ruled the practice was unconstitutional. And data shows that cops did enforce social distancing on Black communities far more often than they did white one. I hope we haven’t forgotten that white people were literally going to the hood to get vaccinated when Black and brown folks were struggling to get access.
Janey’s concerns are consistent with data and extensive reporting, so let’s not pretend she was acting all anti-vaxxer and shit.
The backlash, if her opponents are being intellectually honest, come more from their worries that people of color are lagging behind white folks in getting vaccinated. That’s fair. Public health officials are already working to get Black folks to overcome their Tuskegee experiment fears to trust the healthcare system. The current acting mayor, a Black woman at that, bringing up slavery and freedom papers to push back against vaccine mandates doesn’t help and is a legitimate observation. It doesn’t negate Janey’s point, though.
The reality is that the Delta variant is becoming a serious problem and could get us back to the death rates of last year, if public officials mishandle it. Janey could have prefaced her remarks by saying, “We urge everyone to get vaccinated and we are monitoring the situation, and here is why we aren’t requiring a mandatory vaccination mandate at the moment,” detailing the city’s steps to ensure every resident is inoculated. Then she could have jumped into the historical racism issues in public health.
Her approach, if you want to critique it, could have been more fleshed out. But let’s not act like she was acting all Dr. Hotep and spreading conspiracy theories unfounded in fact. She wasn’t.
By the way, please Bostonians, get vaccinated.