Listen: A History of Pandemic Xenophobia and Racism

White: That’s exactly right. And you have to remember that the understanding of disease in the 14th century was very different from what we have now. There wasn’t an understanding of contagion or germ theory. Rather, there was an understanding that this pestilence had arrived and we’re going to blame these particular populations for that spread.

But in the late 19th century, you see similar actions at work, just under new and different understandings of disease. With the acceptance of germ theory and an understanding of the ways in which diseases are capable of traveling, disease becomes really a basis for justifying already latent exclusions—whether they’re internal to a nation or a city or in terms of immigration and global travel. So disease becomes a way of further ascribing difference and otherness in a way that is both biological, cultural, and enduring.

Higgins: You’ve mentioned examples of disease bias from that time period in Africa. What are some cases we saw in the U.S.?

White: I think there are several very disturbing historical cases that resonate today as we see so much anti-Asian discrimination and violence and racism. There were two notable events of bubonic plague occurring on U.S. soil.

One was in Honolulu, which was at the time part of the American colony of Hawaii. There was great concern, in that case, of Hawaii being seen fundamentally as an Asiatic colony because of this stigma around the spread of infectious disease coming from the Asian continent. And what resulted was an incredibly violent, racist, and xenophobic quarantine of the city’s Chinatown, whereby Chinese homes and businesses were segregated away from the rest of the city. People were unable to travel in and out.

But at the same time, the region around this Chinatown, and even within, was gerrymandered such that [for] American and white-owned businesses and homes, you could travel without encumbrance. The public-health authority of the city attempted to burn down and sanitize plague-infected homes, and ultimately these fires got out of control and engulfed much of the Chinatown in flames, obviously leaving many homeless, without employment, without a job, without a place of work.

Higgins: On top of a plague.

White: Indeed. And we saw similar racially segregated quarantines occur in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1900 to 1904 as they were battling the plague. And those quarantines also played out in rather similar and oppressive ways.

Higgins: Back in April of last year, you wrote: “As we witness spates of xenophobic violence, Sinophobia and other anti-Asian sentiment, it is important for us to notice whose perspective dominates responses to epidemics.” What have you been thinking about as we’ve seen this anti-Asian harassment and violence escalating?

White: I’ve been both incredibly saddened by this and also frustrated. This history of anti-Asian racism runs very much through histories of epidemics, of immigration, of colonialism that the United States often doesn’t discuss. What this ignores is the long history of structurally racist action against Asian populations broadly. And this goes back to the latter half of the 19th century, reaching a sort of apex with two major federal acts that would control immigration from Asia to the United States.

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