San Francisco Chinatown was never consigned to the flames. But when plague panic flared, as it did throughout the four-year outbreak, the Chinese bore the brunt. They were quarantined, prevented from going to work, their houses and businesses ransacked, people and belongings sprayed down with poisons and disinfectants, and forced to accept inoculation with experimental vaccine. San Francisco’s Chinese were, in short, made to answer for the presence of plague, a “crime” they couldn’t possibly have committed if they’d wanted to. Soon it would be discovered that bacteria in the guts of fleas who traveled by rodent-back were the parties responsible for spreading the hideous, highly infectious disease. But in the meantime -- and off and on for a long time after -- whiter and wealthier Americans figured the Chinese were as good a scapegoat as any.
From the founding of the nation to the present, American inability to keep “foreign” and frightening disease from our shore has made us panic. Historically, Americans' first reaction to the threat of infectious disease from outside our borders is to try to throw up an impenetrable wall. As early as the late eighteenth century, international Atlantic ship passengers attempting to sneak around Rhode Island’s stringent quarantine laws could be put to death “without benefit of clergy.” On Easter weekend 1992, would-be refugees from Haiti’s Duvalier regime, gathered at the now-infamous U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rioted when they were told they were HIV-positive and would not be allowed to come to the U.S. Just last week, Ebola screening measures were put into place at a number of major American airports, including Atlanta’s.
But germs are fantastic travelers, and infectious diseases break out in the United States despite our best efforts. When they do, we waste no time in showing off our xenophobia, often adding racism, homophobia, or anti-Semitism to the mix. Irish immigrants were blamed for the American portion of the 1832 cholera epidemic, with some American Protestant preachers maintaining, as did preacher Gardiner Spring, that cholera was “a scourge, a rod in the hand of God” sent to punish the intemperate, filthy, and furthermore Catholic Irish. If this sounds a lot like contemporary Protestant preachers (or reality TV show personalities) claiming that HIV/AIDS was sent by God to rid the world of gays, you’re not wrong. The message, then and now, is clear: “normal” red-blooded, white, heterosexual Protestant Americans are exempt from blame for disease.
All serious disease, therefore, must come from somewhere else, from foreigners. During and just after the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the US between the 1880s and 1920s, tuberculosis was known as “the Jewish disease.” The 1918 influenza pandemic spread worldwide and killed more than half a million Americans, yet was known as the “Spanish flu” and its spread in the U.S. was often blamed on Italian immigrants. Around the same time as the Hawaiian and Californian bubonic plague outbreaks, Southerners often claimed that whites could not catch smallpox, which they referred to as “Cuban itch” or “nigger itch.” One would hope no one is referring to Ebola with such epithets, but these days it is difficult not to notice that Africans -- even New York City-dwelling Nigerians simply trying to have a Nigerian independence day parade -- are increasingly being considered automatically suspicious.
Germs will travel whether we like it or not. But we Americans can, if we choose to, set down some of our baggage. Old habits are hard to break, yes. But our historical responses to infectious outbreaks don’t serve us, or anyone, very well. Germs are truly global citizens, utterly unconcerned with who you are, where you come from, who you love, or what you look like. Americans who want to make history can learn to do likewise.