Swine flu and the hate virus The Denver Post

  • May 17, 2009

This Op Ed was published in the Denver Post on May 17th, 2009 Is there someone we can blame for the swine flu? According to some hyperbolic media pundits and bloggers, there’s an easy answer, dictated by stereotypes and prejudices.

It’s immigrants who are to blame, they say, particularly those from Mexico. Exploiting the public’s concern about a new public health threat, anti-immigrant voices have taken the opportunity to promote a hate-filled agenda.

A public health, environmental or other crisis often provides an opening for bigots to promote their own, racist theories. We saw this after 9/11, when some attempted to scapegoat and blame all American Muslims for the actions of a few extremists.

We saw this in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when white supremacists communicating to each other on the Internet incorporated Hurricane Katrina into their standard racist and anti-Semitic rants, claiming that Jews were controlling and manipulating the government and were using African-Americans to destroy the white race.

So it should be no surprise that we are seeing bigotry and scapegoating now, when new anxieties have surfaced. The flu outbreak has been taken up by anti-immigrant and anti-Latino forces as affirming the “truth” to their long-held argument that immigration is bad for America.

They have long sought to portray immigration as having many negative consequences for society, including the unsubstantiated claim that immigrants bring with them germs and disease.

Without any evidence, some in the media and in the blogosphere have suggested, outrageously, that terrorists are using undocumented immigrants to pass the virus onto unsuspecting Americans in order to carry out a bioterrorist attack against our country.

During one discussion of the flu, Jay Severin, a talk show host in Boston, blamed the virus’ spread on Mexican immigrants, referring to them as “criminalians,” “leeches” “the world’s lowest of primitives” and exporters of “women with mustaches and VD” among other incendiary and deeply offensive remarks.

Some of the commentators who criticize immigration are even accusing Latino immigrants, many of whom have been in this country for years, for purposely plotting to bring death and destruction to America’s shores.

This repeated and vilifying rhetoric creates a fearful environment for immigrants, regardless of their immigration status. It is an environment with which the Jewish community is familiar, dating back to the Middle Ages when Jews were accused of poisoning the wells during the Black Plague.

And during major 19th and 20th century immigration waves in this country, other immigrants – Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese – were regularly demonized as disease-carrying intruders.

We know all-too-well that such stereotypes can lead to discrimination against and harassment of immigrants, especially in an environment where there is a major public health scare and people are more susceptible to believing misinformation and innuendo about the source of the crisis.

Media pundits and personalities bear an especially important responsibility, for their words can be as dangerous as those of extremists talking among themselves on the far fringes of the Internet. Their words are heard and internalized by thousands, if not millions of people. They should know that words have consequences.

When they repeat hateful rhetoric, or give credence to outlandish stereotypes, it gives those notions added credibility, and there is a greater likelihood that those words will be repeated – in the workplace, in schools, in town hall meetings, and across the Internet.

Fair-minded Americans should reject any effort to use the flu outbreak as an excuse to spread the virus of hate.