Race, Pandemics, and Disease: Immigration and Repeating History

By Alexia Potter

It’s crazy to think about how we have surpassed the one-year anniversary of start of the COVID-19 pandemic. So much has happened in this one year and so much has not happened. After realizing that we have officially reached the one-year mark, I reflected on what life was like before it all began. I remember reading about the virus a few weeks before it got out of control. I recall reading articles from the Daily Mail every single day (because it’s called the Daily Mail) about how there were growing concerns in China regarding this new virus and before we knew it, the virus had spread around the globe. After COVID started to make its way through Europe, and eventually the United States, I recalled reading headlines about how people had begun labeling the virus as the “Chinese disease” and people were blaming not just Chinese Americans for the spread of COVID to the U.S., but any Asian-American was suitable for blame and to be blatantly attacked for “being the reason” for the spread of COVID to the U.S. At first glance, this idea of Chinese people being blamed for the start of the pandemic may seem like a unique struggle that had to be endured by the Asian-American community but if we take a step back and look at the history of the United States, it becomes obvious that this is not the first time a racial minority has been unfairly and unrightfully blamed for spreading a disease.

In Natalia Molina’s How Race Is Made, she defines racial scripts as, “ways in which the lives of the racialized groups are linked across time and space and thereby affect one another, even when they do not directly cross paths.” What Molina is sayings is that the experiences that one minority groups endures is not unique to that minority group alone. This “script” is repeated throughout history and most likely can be applied to other racialized groups at some point in time. This connection can be seen between what the Asian-American community is experiencing now—as scapegoats accused of starting the pandemic—to what Mexicans experienced back in the early 1900’s when they were blamed for the spread of tuberculosis (TB).

During the 1880’s, cases of TB began popping up in the Eastern U.S. and at the time, the best cure was believed for people to go live in the south along the U.S. – Mexican border because the “region’s dry warm climate” would bring these people back to full health. The other reason that the Southwest was believed to help cure TB was because no cases of it had yet been found in any Mexicans and since they lived in that region and were healthy, the “logical conclusion” was that Mexicans were immune to TB and that the region’s climate protected their health. As mostly east coast white male health-seekers with TB settled in their new homes in the Southwest, they hired Mexican workers and servants to work in their homes. But as more people continued to migrate to the border with TB, eventually the Mexican workers, most often the domestic workers, began to contract the extremely contagious disease.
When doctors first began diagnosing cases of TB in Mexican workers, they blamed the spread of the disease on sexual promiscuity of the Mexican domestic workers. They believed that these women were meeting multiple people and often people of other races and conducting sexual activity with them that allowed for them to contract TB and spread it to other people. This highly offensive and racist theory allowed for the establishment of the stereotype that Mexicans were inherently “dirty and disease ridden” as well as the idea that Mexican women were sexually deviant. Rather than focusing on finding a cure or minimizing the spread, white tuberculars blamed Mexican workers that were in no way at fault for coming down with the sickness. In fact, they denied they were the original carriers of the disease.

This history has some parallels with what we saw at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. People were angry with China when there was speculation that the COVID-19 virus stemmed from wet markets in Wuhan, China. In the U.S. media outlet and the public called Chinese people “reckless and dirty.” In the same way that the white health-seekers in El Paso blamed Mexicans for spreading TB, many people were unfairly Chinese people—and by extension most Asian people—for spreading Covid-19 despite tourism and a hesitance to quarantine (and later wearing masks) the major causes for spreading the disease. Rather than focus on what we as a nation needed to do to slow the spread of COVID, people spent precious energy posting hate online and committing acts of violence against the Asian-American community. Molina’s theory of racial scripts provides the historical understandings for this current moment’s violence and xenophobia.

By looking back at history, it is clear to see how different minority groups often get mistreated in similar ways at different periods of time. These racial scripts have existed in the past, exist now, and will continue to exist in the future. It is important to identify these different racial scripts as they pop-up because it shows us the long roots of this kind of violence that covered by public health and medicalization. Unfortunately, it does not appear that racial scripts will be coming to an end anytime soon but for now, we can try to learn from other groups’ experiences and try to develop better strategies for confronting these horrific cycles of racial violence and dehumanization.

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One thought on “Race, Pandemics, and Disease: Immigration and Repeating History

  1. Pingback: Cruelty and the History of Immigration: Special Essay Series | Borderlands History

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