Kind of Blue, Part II: The Racialization of Ebola, Media Misrepresentations, and What We Can Learn from Chris Brown – #DoAllBlacklivesmatter?

Sonasha Braxton

Read Part One here.

Have you ever wondered where the deflated egos of unrealized epidemics go when they’ve concluded their U.S. tour? They pack their bags and Black Star Line it back to Africa, without leaving a trace. Ebola was the Bobby Shmurda of 2014, a likely one hit wonder “so last year” that I hesitated even writing this article. I was concerned, since it is now unfashionable to a fickle media, that its relevance had been defeated, and that its fate, not unlike a dream deferred, was now drying up like a raisin in the West African sun. Yet it is for this very reason, it’s Houdini-like appearance and disappearance in the U.S., that it is significant. Outside of the last discussion of humanitarian imperatives, structural deficit and political economies, we would be remiss to ignore a few other major details which relate quite specifically to the virus’s identity formation, popularization, and disappearance in the U.S. There is significant meaning in the media’s use of irresponsible journalism, the racialization of the disease, and even the analysis of the tweet of infamous bad-boy pop icon, Chris Brown. All of this comes at a time where there exists an increasingly visible disproportionate response to the “inconvenient” and “deadly” presence of Black bodies, and what they embody both literally and metaphorically. In order to deconstruct the Ebola hysteria, an exploration into how Ebola became a racially constructed politically pliable discourse must necessarily ensue.
Africa: The Dark Country

On August 21st, 2014, Newsweek released the cover story, “A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic,” the same issue which ironically discusses “post-post racial” America. At first glance, this may appear perfectly harmless, a logical inquiry into a clearly burgeoning pandemic. But this requires an examination of our own internalized assumptions about the continent of Africa. Therefore the inherent racial associations in the magazine’s content and aesthetic choices must be questioned. Beyond the questionable literary choice to describe meat as “bushmeat” compounded with epidemiological amnesia of facts, the content also succeeded in othering African immigrants by creating a caricaturized portrayal of the article’s one African protagonist. Two white authors on a stroll into the Bronx looking for “bushmeat” enter the African immigrant heart of darkness, a place of strange fumes, and seedy characters who deny knowing what bushmeat, “the butchered harvest of African wildlife, and an ethnic delicacy in West African expatriate communities all over the world” is. [1] They finally stop someone who admits knowledge of “bushmeat,” who uses “brief curbside mimicry of buckteeth” to explain the animal, finally reducing African immigrants to ignorance and charades.

The most exceedingly problematic image however was the use of a chimpanzee on the cover. Why? The image of primates has often been used as a dehumanizing means of discussing people of African descent. Throughout the 19th century, race discourse was driven by social Darwinism based upon scientific “proof” of the similarities between Africans and apes. For example, in prominent English physician, Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799), White wrote: “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape”. Franz Ignan Pruner, a German medical doctor in his 1861 monograph on Black Egyptians, found that prognathism (protrusion of the lower jaw), was directly correlated with animality and thus found a “verifiable” similarity between African brains and ape brains. Pruner was not unique in his approach. Scientific racism in the 19th century, became the “evidence-based” proof of savagery both hidden and manifest in eugenic undertones.

It goes deeper. A recondite occurrence from the late 1800s until the mid 1950s were “ethnological expositions” or human zoos, which had became extremely popular in the West. The 1878 and 1889 Parisian World Fairs both contained “Negro Villages” frequented by millions. The Colonial Exhibitions in Marseille and Paris also featured naked indigenous people in cages[2]. The most well known, Ota Benga, a member of the Mbuti ethnic group was brought to the U.S. from the Congo by an American missionary in 1904 and subsequently taken to the Bronx zoo in New York in 1906, where he was put on display in an orangutan cage in an effort facilitated by the head of the New York Zoological Society. He was labeled “The Missing Link”, indicating that evolutionarily speaking, Africans occupied the space between monkey and man.[3]

In the history of racist stereotyping, caricatures, and scientific inquiry, primates have been a central image. Starting in the antebellum south, many cartoons in the early 20th century depicted Black people with simian features as way of expressing a lack of difference between them and primates and reinforcing negative stereotypes of Black people as aggressive, lacking intelligence, ambition and morals. While the graphic images no longer litter mainstream media, they still appear periodically, and the metaphor has far from disappeared from use. In December 2014, the Korean Central News Agency released a statement blaming the United States for their internet outage in which they mustered up the hackneyed racial slurs. President Barack Obama was called a crossbreed and compared to “a monkey in a tropical forest”[4].

Understanding this link is critical because the psychological impact of implicit knowledge is known. Goff et. al’s 2008 study, Not yet human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences, found that irrespective of explicit awareness of historical associations between apes and African-Americans, that this association “influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgments in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black-ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects”[5]. So associating (whether implicitly or explicitly) a people with animals causes others to treat those people like animals. Sounds like sound logic to me. Thus, historical representation of the negro-ape metaphor and its dehumanizing implicit content continues to affect how both individuals and systems view and treat Black people. So there is nothing arbitrary or neutral about the picture of an ape being used to discuss Ebola.

This article was a defining moment in which Ebola was transformed into a disease where a specific population automatically became responsible for a nearly non-event in the United States. That population was not just the West African immigrant community from Ebola- affected countries, but African immigrants in general. Because of the rampant geographical illiteracy in the United States, many people cannot distinguish between African countries. Evidence of this can be found in the global reaction to Ebola in both the decline in tourism in African and xenophobic responses to African immigrants in the United States.
Xenophobia and Economic Effects

In November 2014, drinking a beer alone in an empty hotel in the somewhat touristy beach town of Popenguine, Senegal, I asked the waiter where everyone else was. He cited the Francophone Summit as the culprit, but not before adding “and Ebola” and rolling his eyes dramatically. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) acknowledged in August 2014 that the Ebola outbreak could affect tourism to the region “due to misperceptions about the transmission of the virus” [6]. The UNWTO predicted correctly. Tourism, a 170 billion dollar a year industry on the Continent was and continues to be significantly compromised.

SafariBookings.com, the self-purported largest online marketplace for African safari holidays upon surveying 500 safari tour operators in September 2014 found the majority had bookings drop 20% to 70% since the Ebola outbreak. The site continues to maintain a space on the page for Ebola Updates, with links to maps, facts and cancellation policies[7]. For “The Hotels Association of Tanzania”, a conglomerate of 195 sites, business is down 30-50%. South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool cited an epidemic of ignorance as the problem. Specifically problematic, as noted by Lathifa Sykes, chief executive of the Hotels Association of Tanzania, is people’s conception of Africa, stating, “Africa is not one country. Africa is a continent”[8].

While traveling through Senegal, when I had the chance to have conversations with people in buses, waiting for dresses to be made, with friends, I asked about Ebola. Nearly everyone with whom I spoke recounted stories about relatives and friends in the U.S. who experienced some form of Ebola-induced xenophobia. The actual number of xenophobic attacks is unknown. Some that made the news were that of a Liberian woman in Staten Island forced to take unpaid leave, Rwandan children in New Jersey forbidden from attending school after pressure from parents, Navarro College rejecting African applicants due to Ebola, and Senegalese children being jumped on the playground of their Bronx school by classmates calling them “Ebola”. In a press conference their father made it clear that bullying did not happen to his children alone, saying, “It’s not just them…All the African children suffer this” [9]. Because bullying is normally not newsworthy, it is highly possible that a large number of African children experienced some degree of this abuse. More concerning was the adult behavior. We would think adults should know better, right? The stigma became so strong that it ignited a hashtag campaign, “I am Liberian. I am not a disease” and “I am not a virus” on Facebook and Instagram in response to countless acts of racial epithets and discrimination towards individuals from any part of Africa.

Thus Ebola ends up as an exercise in othering. And according to Robert Fullilove, a Columbia University professor of sociomedical sciences this is made significantly easier, “when somebody’s ‘otherness’ is associated with a deadly disease”[10]. Thus all African people became targets for othering. Faulkner et al’s 2004 study, Evolved Disease-Avoidance Mechanisms and Contemporary Xenophobic Attitudes, found their hypothesis that “chronic and contextually aroused feelings of vulnerability to disease motivate negative reactions to foreign peoples” to ring true, and that the implications for such were that both historically and at present, disease was another tool in use to dehumanize groups deemed “undesirable” [11]. And this is exactly what happened to African immigrants in the U.S. under Ebola’s very racialized five-minute reign.
Obama is trying to give us Ebola!

Working in Cote d’Ivoire, close to the Liberian border, from April to July 2014, I watched as Ebola began appearing sparsely throughout West Africa. However, when I returned to the United States in late July, there was no media coverage. The media’s attention was captured momentarily with the question of whether or not to allow the first two blue passports infected with Ebola back into the United States in early August. Late August there was the Newsweek article, then on September 30th, Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola and died eight days later, and the media went into a frenzy. But another frenzy was occurring concomitantly…the midterms.

According to non-profit research and information center mediamatters.org, “in early October, the GOP developed a plan to make the federal government’s response to Ebola a central part of its midterm elections strategy”[12]. So the scene was set, Ebola was front page of Newsweek, and an awful African disease was poised to take over the country. Mediamatters.org found that in the four weeks prior to elections major broadcast networks ran approximately 1000 segments about Ebola, in the two weeks after election day, there were less than 50. Republicans jumped on President Obama’s refusal to label the one death at the time, an “epidemic” or “outbreak”, because cogent speech doesn’t make for good scare tactics, nor emotional voting. The Republicans saw this as an opportunity to criticize President Obama and effectually the Democratic party’s so-called lack of response to the impending crisis. If history has shown us anything, it is that fear is the best possible asset to have in your corner during an election period. It creates a perfect context to invoke the fallacy of false dilemma. It is simply a version of “if you are not with us, then you are against us”. If you are not inciting the country to fear, then you are un-American. So President Obama accused of being unpatriotic, then became the target of characters such as Fox’s Dr. Keith Ablow who proclaimed, “Obama has it in for us; that’s why he’s trying to give us Ebola”, resorting to grossly hyperbolized and laughable rhetoric.

But it didn’t end there. It simply moved to victim blaming, tantamount to a racialized “you were wearing a short skirt, you asked for it”. Todd Kincannon, Former South Carolina GOP director tweeted, “the people of Africa are to blame for why it’s so shitty. They could stop eating each other and learn calculus at any time”[13]. Fox News Reporter Andrea Tarantos claimed that Africans are to blame because “in these countries they don’t believe in traditional medical care. So someone could get off a flight and seek treatment from a witch doctor who practices Santeria”. So Conservative media resorted to dehumanization, alleging Africans to be uneducated cannibals who seek out syncretic Yoruba-Catholic religious healing practiced mostly in the Caribbean to blame them for a structurally deficient disease model. Makes perfect sense right?
Chris Brown, Conspiracy Theory, and Victim Blaming

This casual “blaming the victim” attitude adopted by the Conservative U.S. media in particular also blamed Africans’ irrational belief in conspiracy theory for the continued spread of Ebola, before reverting to exhausted dyads of white hero/black death. Though there was little evidence of the widespread nature of these beliefs in Ebola-affected parts of Africa, the media focus became the tireless white medical staff saving Africans who thought that there was no such thing as Ebola, that there was something in the water, that vaccines might be poisoned, and that their governments were spreading the disease in order to receive more foreign aid from the U.S. Delaware State University professor Dr. Cyril Broderick published a letter in Liberia’s Daily Observer in September with accusations that the U.S. government manufactured Ebola and distributed it in the guise of a vaccine[14]. The anti-vaxxers went wild. But before we get too carried away, while not validating these theories let’s think about why these ideas aren’t so far-fetched based on Black medical experimentation and bio-warfare against Black people.

Most of us are familiar with the Tuskegee experiments in which 600 Black men, told they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government, actually went untreated for syphilis for 40 years between 1932 and 1972. Less of us know about “Mississippi Appendectomies” in the South between 1930 and 1963, in which thousands of Black women were involuntarily sterilized during unrelated operations, or under threat of losing welfare benefits [15]. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Relf v Weinberger actually sued Casper Weinberger, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to court, where the district court found approximately 150,000 poor people had been sterilized using federal funds[16]. Yet, what is perhaps even less known are the more recent examples of unethical medical experimentation and modern day eugenics practiced on Black people. There are approximately 130,000 Jewish Ethiopians living in Israel. Like the Black men in Tuskegee, they form part of a marginalized community, which experiences rates of poverty significantly higher than the rest of the population as well as discrimination in employment, housing, and education. In January 2013, the Israeli newspaper, The Haaretz, ran an article in which the government admitted to coercing poor Ethiopian women into receiving long acting Depo-Provera, as a prerequisite for immigrating, thus explaining the 20% reduction in Ethiopian-Israeli births in the last decade.[17]

In South Africa Project Coast was an exercise in biological warfare utilized by South Africa’s white apartheid government and exposed in 1998 during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in testimony by the head of chemical and biological warfare, Wouter Basson. Everyday items were poisoned and weaponized with lethal bacteria for use against Black South Africans in their liberation struggle. Testimony also revealed scientific research used towards the development of bacterial agents and anti-fertility vaccines selectively targeting Black South Africans that were “far-advanced” [18].

In 1994, the CDC and National Institute of Health (NIH), funded testing short course AZT treatments for over 17000 HIV in eight African countries, half of whom received a placebo. Subjects did not consent nor were not aware of the dangers of the vaccine[19]. This ended in 1998, but bioethics in the developing world remains a problem in part due to exploitative practices by multinational pharmaceutical corporations. While the aforementioned examples are by no means exhaustive, you get the point. Blaming the small percentage of African people in affected areas who believed Ebola might have been orchestrated, is preposterous, especially when history provides evidence of widespread Black medical experimentation.
Do All Black Lives Matter?

So let’s understand very clearly what happened, step by step:

1. A sexy incurable disease appeared in several countries in West Africa, with casualties incomparable to Africa’s biggest killers like malaria.

2. It arrived in the United States via blue passport evacuations, and regular travel

3. The media ran with the disease, exploiting racialized images, which concretized dehumanizing conceptions of African immigrants, and resultantly Black people This was fueled by U.S geographical ignorance and generated a culture of fear.

4. The Republicans capitalized on the brewing fear culture using Ebola as a talking point for the midterms.

5. The U.S. response included xenophobic attitudes, and reduction of travel to the entire African continent, resulting in a decline in Africa’s collective GDP

6. In the U.S. on a deeper psychological level, the media’s implanting of cognitive associations of Blacks with animals reinforcing dehumanization, served to legitimize disproportional violent response to Black people (as carriers of disease)

7. Media coverage of Ebola in Africa neglected to attribute agency to Ebola victims instead often blaming Africans for continuing to spread the disease due to irrational beliefs and conspiracy theory, without acknowledging the historical truths of Black medical experimentation for the purposes of population control.

8. The Republicans won the majority of Senate seats and Ebola was cured in the U.S. imagination.

So while I will give credit to Time Magazine for acknowledging Ebola nurses in its 2014 Person of the Year article (only one of whom was a continental African), I must truly give credit to Liberia’s Ebola Incident Management System who stated clearly to Western media that they cannot just come taking pictures of the naked, dead and dying to be sold for a small buck on Western markets, that patients have a right to dignity and privacy [20]. This is a thank you to the West African Health Care Workers and the families and individuals who saved one another from Ebola at risk to their own lives and received no recognition. This is acknowledging they are not simply victims, Black bodies, and degraded objects. Media content and framing is not apolitical and benign. The attention span of U.S. citizens may be as wide as our geographical literacy but this does not change the fact that Black lives everywhere have value, no matter how much radio play that message gets this year and irrespective of its newsworthiness. And you guessed it… I’ll bet my blue passport on that.

Notes

[2] Blanchard, P. , Bancel, N., Deroo, E. & Lemaire, S. (2009). Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press

[3] Bradford, Phillips Verner and Blume, Harvey. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo. St. Martins Press, 1992.

[5] Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M. J., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (2), 292-306.

[11] Faulkner, J., Schaller, M., Park, J., & Duncan, L. (2004). Evolved Disease-Avoidance Mechanisms and Contemporary Xenophobic Attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 7(4), 333-353

[15] Washington, H. A. (2008). MEDICAL APARTHEID: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present. New York, NY: Doubleday

[18] Burger, M. and Gould, C. (2002) Secrets and lies: Wouter Basson and South Africa’s chemical and biological warfare programme. Zebra, (Cape Town, South Africa); Gould C. & Folb, P. (2002); Gould C. (31 July 2002) Unwrapping Project Coast: lessons to be learnt from the exposure of South Africa’s chemical and biological warfare programme.

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