“The Problem of the 20th Century is the Problem of the Color line.” WEB Du Bois.
The incidence of Ebola in different parts of the world has produced a new social health discourse. Let us call this the “Ebola-Discourse”. This “Ebola-Discourse” is characterized mainly by knee jack responses, unconscious and conscious historical amnesia with respect to global epidemics, irrational and unscientific attitudes and explanations laid with subtle and structural racism, Hollywood kind of scientific attitude, a reconstructed form of racism; a subtle attempt to naturalize Ebola as a race issue contrary to its nature which is no different from any other human health issue.
The racism embedded in this discourse rests on a scientifically inexplicable naturalized explanation of Ebola. To naturalize an occurrence is to argue that something X is in the nature of something Z. Applied to Ebola, it is the height of irrationality and unscientific thought in health and other matters.
This sort of race induced naturalized explanation of Ebola, (an explanation that was not used in previous cases of epidemic in the world), is driven primarily by disguised raw power, misuse and abuse of power of access especially to the media, and lopsided power relations.
The Ebola Discourse, which is dominated by Euro-American voices and media in my view, has validated the observation of one of the finest philosophers and thinkers of our time WEB Du Bois that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. Indeed, the Ebola Discourse has a color to it.
Though WEB DU Bois wrote these words at an earlier period, they ring bell in the 21st century. Listen to his voice on the thick, cold and scary psychology that underlines race and racism. Using himself as a trope Du Bois wrote:
“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question; unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half –hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? They say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?
At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.” WEB Du Bois wrote these words in the 19th century. Take these immortal words and their implication with you to “International” Airports as passengers check in and out of the airports, scrutinize the stares at people who look…; they summarize the cold and frozen psychology produced by the racialization and manipulation of the Ebola Discourse in the 21st century via the racist practice of stigmatization.
It is conceivable that the “suddenness” of the outbreak of Ebola and the “suddenness” in its reporting has produced knee jack responses-both literate and illiterate, scientific and unscientific. However, this reporting has been driven mainly by the so-called “International” Media, which is dominated by imperial voices, which are domicile in Europe, America.
Strangely, many institutions-such as universities, schools, hospitals, churches, etc have been implicated in this mix of scientific and unscientific, literate and not so literate attitudes. But being centers of knowledge, one would have thought that universities, hospitals and schools ought to know better. However, given the unresolved race problem globally-what WEB Du Bois called the problem of the color line, the “Ebola-discourse” goes on with a color in the foreign media; and it is driven by a sickening ignorant racist undertone that inclines one to begin to question certain claims to knowledge and enlightenment in certain quarters.
Common knowledge of nature study as we were taught then in primary schools in Nigeria in our time shows that disease which breaks out as an epidemic is caused by what natural scientists call virus. And given global migrations, it could come from anywhere –not necessarily where it has taken residence: while it stays mute, mutate, mature and breaks out as disease. Hence, there is nothing ethnic or racial about a virus and its outbreak as disease.
Such virus could inhabit a space for a period of time, mutate before it breaks out as a disease. So, what is in an “epidemic” such that we turn it into a race or ethnic thing as it is done in Euro American dominated settings and spaces, which ordinarily lay claim to knowledge? Absolutely nothing.
Let us take a more social look at things. Geographically speaking Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone where you have an outbreak of Ebola are within the reach of other West African countries. The question then is: what explains why there is no outbreak of Ebola in other West African countries (there are about sixteen West African countries) other than Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia despite the contiguity of all these countries? The answer is simple.
Race and ethnicity have nothing to do with Ebola. Ebola virus is not an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), a flying saucer that will of its own develop wings in London UK, zooms into space like a self propelled space object and lands in Dublin, Ireland, Madrid, Spain, Texas, US, Shanghai, China, or Ondo, Nigeria ! This is simple science. Let us teach our children this. It is so basic, it is shocking that the Euro-American dominated and controlled spaces display so much of the sickening ignorance we see on this issue.
And if you confront Ebola or any virus like Nigeria (when it sneaked into Nigeria through Mr. Patrick Sawyer), Congo and Uganda confronted it with their own local resources, Ebola will be vanquished, as it was extirpated in these African countries. Therefore to mystify Ebola and put a ring of race and ethnicity around it is dubious science laid with racism and color; and this is very disappointing in spaces that are presumably called universities, hospitals and churches. I need to check again if scientific thinking has color to it.
Since part of what drives the racist undertone of Ebola is a deliberate and self imposed historical amnesia in Euro –American spaces, let me show by concrete examples why this is so badly flawed, and if people continue to hold such terrible flaw then we have good reasons to conclude that the claim to scientific tradition in these spaces is tinged with racism and self inflicted ignorance.
I have documented 10 cases of global (not regional) epidemic since 17th century as recorded in the United States of America. By global I mean where the epidemic leaves and journeys from a region of the world to the other. There could be such epidemic, which is traceable to Africa. And we should bring all of these into the open for the benefit of our global humanity. But interestingly none of these ten global epidemic is traced to Africa.
- 1633-1634 Small Pox Epidemic in New England area of the US. The journey of small box to North America was through European settlers in the 1600s. In 1633-1634, small pox journeyed through the North east coast of the US and wiped away entire population of Native Americans (the original native owners of North America) of various ethnicities. It reduced the entire population of Native American peoples by 70%.
- 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia. An estimated 2000 people died.
- 1830-1851 Second Cholera Pandemic. This began in India and journeyed through trade routes killing 150,000 Americans.
- 1918 Spanish Flu. The name is a misnomer because it has nothing to do only with Spain. It journeyed from Europe and took 675, 000 American lives, and 20 m lives globally.
- 1952 Polio Epidemic. It came from nowhere but the US itself. The origin was internal to the United States. It resulted in 3145 deaths in the US.
- 1957 Asian Flu pandemic. It raveled from China and journeyed to the US. It took 70,000 American lives.
- Mexican Hot sauce Botulism outbreak. Internal to the US.
- 1993 Cryptosporidium Outbreak in Milwaukee. One hundred people died.
- 2010 Whooping Cough in California. Caused the illness of 9477 people and ten infants.
- 1980s HIV AIDS. Out of genuine and moral respect for fellow human persons living with the HIV condition it is just best not to talk about its origin and journey around the world-an origin which in itself has again-violating all scientific data about its origin- been dubiously and in the most evil manner politicized by raw and naked power laden by the evil and power politics of race.
For more information please visit this site (http://www.healthline.com/health/worst-disease-outbreaks-history#AIDS1).
There are local health issues such as meningitis in Africa, which are regionalized. But here I am talking about global epidemics-the global winding trips of diseases. The geography and journey of these top ten epidemics show that they came from far and wide-European countries, Asian Countries, South American, Caribbean countries etc. None of these top ten as documented came from African countries. Given the evil called transatlantic enslavement the closest that could be said to have anything to do with Africa was the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia, which journeyed from the Caribbean Island.
However, what is significant in these cases is that there were no attempts to script race on the epidemics. For example, unlike Ebola, which – in the current epidemic – has so far sadly infected more than 14,000 people(no doubt due to our-African countries’ own failings), the scope of Dengue Fever is enormous, with up to 100 million infections every year in contemporary period, mostly across Asia. But we do not read that Asians are stigmatized because of Dengue Fever.
Stepping back into the centuries, take the most dramatic in the 17th century-the small box epidemic in New England area. This epidemic journeyed from Europe and wiped off native and original owners of America-the Native Americans who are wrongly called ‘Red Indians.”
So if the small pox epidemic from European countries (whose effects on Native Americans was close to genocide in North America) and other epidemics are not constructed, as being genetic and race and ethnicity are not scripted on them, why script race and ethnicity on Ebola? Why discriminate against people who come from the countries where Ebola broke out?
In response to the stigmatization, hotline numbers are being created to “assist” the stigmatized. But to start creating hotline numbers for those who are discriminated against to call as a response to the racism going on shows terrible and ominous signs of potential race strife globally. And this needs to be quickly checked for good reasons and for global peace. If race was not scripted on the top ten epidemic as shown above, and on Dengue Fever in Asia which infects 100 million people every year in contemporary times, it is clearly un-intelligent and silly to script race on Ebola.
However, doing so clearly validates WEB Du Bois prognosis in the 19th century that the most fundamental question in the 20th century was going to be the problem of the color line. It was true in the 20th century. It has remained so in the 21st century.
But in closing, given the history of racism, historically speaking, I am obliged to ask and answer a simple question: Is my argument about blaming “the other”? Nope! The cultural core of my being and practice -writings, thought and scholarly practice-yesterday, today and tomorrow is and will be that African countries and we Africans must carry our cross by ourselves. And that cultural core is an ethical issue-the buck stops on our (African countries) tables-collectively and severally-no passing it off.
So my resistance and rejection of the stigmatization of a race due to this Ebola issue has nothing to do with blaming the fabled “other”- my view is that from a scientific point of view, it is just silly to script race on it and proceed to stigmatize every African. And because this is done deliberately in spaces and settings controlled by Euro-American media and voices it opens up a racist sedimentation and psychology which validates WEB Du Bois ringing and lonely voice from the world beyond.
Adeolu Ademoyo email@example.com Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. He is also a member of the editorial board of Premium Times.