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RFK Jr. is courting Black voters, a group he once targeted with vaccine disinformation

The independent presidential candidate produced a documentary-style film in 2021 that spread vaccine disinformation to the Black community.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a voter rally In Grand Rapids, Mich.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.Emily Elconin / Getty Images

NEW YORK —  Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. held a roundtable campaign event with Black leaders Sunday covering a wide range of issues from police reform to the Israel-Hamas war. But one topic that wasn’t broached was his history of spreading vaccine disinformation to the Black community. 

In 2021, he produced a film called “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid” which used the real history of medical racism in the United States to peddle conspiracy theories that Covid vaccines were an effort to harm Black communities. 

The documentary-style film features Kennedy, as well as Tony Muhammad, a minister of the Nation of Islam who has claimed that vaccines are “genetically modified” to harm Black children. Kevin Jenkins, CEO of the Urban Global Health Alliance, a New Jersey nonprofit group, who claimed that vaccine campaigns were a plot to “wipe out” Black people, is also in the film. 

The film was released in the spring of 2021, just as Covid vaccines were becoming commonly available in the U.S. The pandemic took a staggering toll on human life, disproportionately impacting Black communities.

Asked by NBC News on Sunday if he regretted spreading vaccine skepticism to the African American community while the Covid shots were first being rolled out, after the issue did not come up at his campaign event, Kennedy responded “No.” 

Once a vocal anti-vaccine activist, Kennedy has been more subdued on the topic during his 2024 campaign. Pressed if he believes that vaccinating children leads to autism, Kennedy responded tersely, “What I believe is irrelevant.”

“A mountain of scientific study links autism to early vaccination with certain vaccines,” he said, without basis. 

While there has been an increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in recent years — due mostly to awareness and diagnosis of cases along the spectrum — the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention declares that “studies continue to show that vaccines are not associated with ASD.” 

Kennedy has led the modern anti-vaccine movement for two decades. Before the Covid pandemic, his activism centered around childhood vaccines — specifically,  the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Before a measles vaccine was developed in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people in the U.S. were infected each year, according to the CDC. Between 400 to 500 people died, mostly children, and about 1,000 suffered encephalitis as a result of the measles. 

Today, vaccine skepticism is helping fuel a resurgence of measles cases in the U.S. and around the world. An outbreak at an elementary school in Weston, Florida, was first reported just this week. And a separate slew of cases broke out in Philadelphia last month.

Measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. But the disease is making a comeback as vaccine disinformation spreads and more parents opt not to vaccinate their children. 

Kennedy has been a reliable spreader of misinformation around the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, promoting the views and content of disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield, who engineered the original MMR vaccine panic in the 1990s. While speaking to NBC News on Sunday, Kennedy disparaged the vaccine, calling it “leaky.”

According to the CDC, two doses of the MMR vaccine are 97% effective, and that protection is usually lifelong.

Asked if he would recommend that parents give their children the MMR vaccine amid an uptick in measles in the U.S., Kennedy declined to answer. 

“I’m not gonna—,” he said, and walked away.