Ebola Hysteria Reveals the Most American of Prejudices

“Ebola hysteria” has reached its peak. African immigrants from nations as far from Ebola-infected countries as Seattle is from Philadelphia are facing discrimination in Dallas. Navarro College in Texas has notified applicants from Nigeria – a nation whose response to Ebola has been successful and internationally lauded – that they will not be admitted because their country had Ebola cases. West African immigrants in Washington, D.C. are being shunned on public transport and asked to take a leave of absence by employers. A high school student of West African descent in Pennsylvania was greeted with chants of “Ebola” when he played soccer. Two Rwandan parents suddenly decided to have their kids take 21 days off school after parents complained that they feared for their children’s health. Recall that Rwanda is 2,600 miles from the nearest Ebola-effected country. I could go on, but the point becomes clear.

Or does it? The often-hysterical treatment of Ebola in the United States – now that it has entered the United States, of course – clearly finds its root in some concoction of fear and… what? Some say simple ignorance: we as a country understand that Ebola is deadly and that we don’t want it, and we know nothing about where it really is or how it really works, so we isolate and assume the worst. Others take this a step further: xenophobia has driven our response. We are ignorant and we really don’t like the idea of other countries giving us something we – the Great Western Civilization – did not start and do not deserve. Anyone who looks remotely foreign should get out.

These characterizations of a murky, hard-to-pin prejudice are both real, and they probably play a role in explaining our irrational response. Americans are exceptionally ignorant about any nation that is not Western and culturally similar to our own. We therefore slip easily into acute xenophobia (see any debate on our border control for an easy example.)

But we must not point to these shortcomings in lieu of identifying the third, most pernicious, and most historically American culprit behind our reaction. Our treatment of Ebola is not just ignorant and xenophobic: it is racist.

Not openly racist — slyly so. Smothered in a blanket of other forms of discrimination, racism surrounding Ebola has exposed itself quietly. But strip away the xenophobia and ignorance: if this outbreak were happening in a white nation, the response would be wildly different. America does not know how to discriminate against white people, and it (and the rest of the West) would have paid much greater attention to the disease in the first place if it had originated in a white nation, even if that nation were “third world.” If Thomas Eric Duncan had been a white man, he would be the poster child of an American fight against Ebola: instead, he came to represent the lying black man bringing a black disease to white America.

Some have pointed this out: Hannah Glorgis for the Guardian and Robin Wright for CNN have crafted angry pieces noting the unmistakable racism in our response to the disease. They make as clear a case as one can. It is not simply that an African life matters less than an American one; it is that a black life matters less than a white one. Because the reaction to Ebola is brimming with other prejudices, this is harder to see. But look at Trayvon Martin, look at Ferguson, look at Jordan Davis: the racism that is so clear in these examples is there in our reaction to Ebola, too.

Glorgis and Wright have been met with an indignant response from the American right (and center, for that matter) that points to the danger of the disease. They admit that the occasional ignorance of Americans is a cause for hysteria, but they are adamant in their insistence that “racism in America” is an outdated phrase and is certainly not applicable in this instance.

This – the denial that racism is even remotely present in our reaction to a group of black nations on the “dark continent” facing an epidemic – is the most dangerous response of all. It shows us that a new kind of racism has been successfully sanctioned in American culture. Call it subtle racism. It is the kind of racism that hides successfully behind more obvious cultural faults. Open racism is no longer acceptable in U.S. public discourse. Subtle racism, though, certainty is. The response to Ebola seems to verify a rule that has become commonplace in our national dialogue: it is okay to be racist so long as you are ostensibly being something else as well. So long as you are more evidently “overly cautious,” more clearly ignorant, more explicitly xenophobic, and only subtly racist, you are good to go in America. We seem to handle one discriminatory label at a time: if racism isn’t top of the list, it must not be there at all.


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