It’s a straightforward application of public health principles, and not greatly controversial, to give many groups in these categories earlier access to vaccines. Priority for those with pre-existing conditions may reduce overall mortality, priority for those in highly connected social situations pays off in intercepting contagion, and so forth. As a result, many wholly sensible priority rules would incidentally protect relatively more minority persons—which would be perfectly proper, so long as these grounds are the basis for the decision.

On the other hand, going beyond these appropriate prioritizations—which by themselves would assist many minority members who have valid reasons to want to stand further ahead in line—in favor of explicit racial preferences in the distribution of a potentially life-saving vaccine would be improper and unlikely to withstand court challenge.

As attorney Hans Bader notes, the Supreme Court in cases such as Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989) has generally disapproved of government use of such racial preferences to fix inequality, except when “the government produced the inequality through its own recent, widespread, intentional discrimination.” Public health outrages of decades past, such as the notorious Tuskegee experiment, do not create some general overhang of racial/medical guilt for which the government may impose disadvantage on blameless citizens today.