In his 1912 book The Nam Family, a study of a “highly inbred” family of “degenerates” in New York State, Eugenics Record Office Director Charles B. Davenport implored readers to understand that “a breeding pot of uncontrolled animalism is as much of a menace to our civilization” as “ten cases of bubonic plague at a point not 200 miles away.”
Over a century later, in the midst of a largely unwarranted Western Ebola hysteria, right-wing politician Scott Brown claimed that the US’ “unprotected border” would allow “people with Ebola and other infectious diseases [to] enter the country without being challenged.”
The two incidents are part of a long American history in which ethnic, cultural, and sexual difference have conjured images of disease, filth, poverty, and degeneracy. Longstanding public perceptions associated different immigrant groups with different diseases: the Irish with cholera; the Jews with tuberculosis; the Italians with polio; the Chinese with Bubonic plague. Public policy would draw from popular biases: the Immigration Act of 1891 barred entry of all immigrant “idiots,” insane,” and sufferers “from a loathsome or dangerous” contagious disease. Eugenic conceptions of mental difference expanded the excludable classes to include “all aliens afflicted with idiocy, insanity, imbecility, feeblemindedness,” and beyond.
Eugenics rhetoric of “tainted,” “impure,” and “degenerate” individuals grafted familiar fears of infectious disease onto fears of inheritable mental and behavioral difference, differences of course associated with all non-“Nordic” populations.
The Ebola scare and its media depictions continue the tradition of embedding ethnic and cultural biases into narratives of disease. Writes Stassa Edwards for Jezebel:
African illness is represented as a suffering child, debased in its own disease-ridden waste; like the continent, it is infantile, dirty and primitive. Yet when the same disease is graphed onto the bodies of Americans and Europeans, it morphs into a heroic narrative: one of bold doctors and priests struck down, of experimental serums, of hazmat suits and the mastery of modern technology over contaminating, foreign disease. These parallel representations work on a series of simple, historic dualisms: black and white, good and evil, clean and unclean.
The threat of infectious disease requires a level-headed scientific and medical response. But history has shown that too often, science and medicine can be warped by popular biases to support ethnocentric, supremacist ideas of national belonging, “foreignness,” and the preservation of an exclusive sort of American identity.
“Paranoia on the Border: Immigration and Public Health,” Adam Turner.
Framing the Moron: The Social Construction of Feeble-mindedness in the American Eugenic Era, Gerald V. O’brien.
Science at the Borders, Amy L. Fairchild.
Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the Immigrant Menace, Alan M. Kraut.