Our VoiceHealth & Environment

4 ways the response to Ebola is really racist

Lauren Taylor • Oct 22, 2014

This year, more than 4,400 people have died from Ebola in West Africa, most in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Despite calls from the UN and World Health Organization, the international response has been slow. But the stakes are high, both in terms of the human suffering caused by the virus and the further damage caused by the panicked response. Below you’ll find a round-up of articles and essays on ways the response to the epidemic has not only been inadequate, but also deeply and persistently racist.

1. Deadly Indifference to Black suffering

Anti-Black racism has been a central and defining feature of the world’s response to the epidemic. As Dr. James Hudson and Dr. Jemima Pierre eloquently explained in their essay, “Ebola, Cholera, and the Epidemiology of Anti-Blackness – Or, Black Lives Don’t Matter,” the world’s wholly inadequate response to the Ebola epidemic reveals a deadly “indifference to Black suffering, and the desire to preserve White life.” Drs. Hudson and Pierre demonstrate how, in the mobilization and allocation of resources and through the media coverage and framing of both epidemics, there has been a pattern “where African, — Black — lives are demeaned and deemed disposable.”

2. A backwards, dirty, and uncivilized place

Mainstream media coverage of the epidemic has been rife with racist tropes about Africa as a backwards, dirty, and uncivilized place. In an article published in The Washington Post, Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne place current news coverage in a larger context of scientific racism and colonialism:

“This long history of white people associating Africans with primates — both savage, running wild in the jungle (never mind that most Africans live nowhere near a jungle or any of the great apes) and threatening any white people who approach — has not evolved as much as we might hope in the last century.”

Seay and Dionne point to the impact of such racist narratives, from a failure to appropriately respond to the epidemic to an increase in harassment and violence directed towards immigrant communities, particularly African immigrants.

3. Fear of Contagion or Fear of Difference?

Anti-immigrant leaders have exploited anxieties about the disease to call for more restrictive policies. Linking fears of contagion to fears of difference, nativists like Ira Mehlman of FAIR called for a ban on immigration and travel from West Africa (despite evidence this would undermine efforts to combat the disease). Mehlman argued that “Obama’s amnesty agenda” was the reason the US had not yet imposed such a ban. Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly went further, suggesting that President Obama purposefully admits people who have contracted Ebola because he wants America to be more like Africa. Writing for the racist website VDARE, Patrick Cleburne asked, “why does Amer­ica need immi­gra­tion from this famously unhealthy part of the world any­way?” Cleburne ended with a call to reconsider the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, a key piece of civil rights legislation that abolished race-based immigration quotas.

4. Prejudiced policy following panics over disease

Right wing media outlets have amplified such arguments, taking a lead role in calling for anti-immigrant policies in response to the epidemic. This compilation by Media Matters includes statements from talk show host Laura Ingraham, who stated in August that “we could have Ebola people coming across the border right now.” Many right wing pundits have called for border militarization in response to the epidemic, in addition to the aforementioned immigration and travel bans from West Africa.

In this post, immigrant rights advocate and lawyer Prerna Lal responded to the xenophobic panic over Ebola: “The United States has a long and persistent history of conflating immigrants with diseases to determine who to exclude from the country.”

Lal explores a long history of prejudiced policy following panics over disease, from the 1891 immigration law that subjected Asian immigrants to humiliating medical exams and much higher rates of deportation, to the detention of HIV-positive Haitian immigrants at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in the 1990s. Given this history, Lal cautions, “we must be extraordinarily vigilant about calls for visa and travel restrictions, especially those based on racialized public health threats…”

Lal is right. We must not let the current panic prevent us from seeing clearly. Ebola is real and dangerous, but so is the racism that has been so entrenched in the US response. We must confront both.

Lauren Taylor is a field organizer at the Center for New Community

Image source: creativecommons.org

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