By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
This isn’t a good time to be black and African in America. Media-induced mass hysteria over Ebola has rehabilitated and brought to the fore the hitherto dormant but nonetheless enduring stereotype of black Africans as vectors of strange, infectious diseases who should be feared and avoided.
To be sure, not every American is Afrophobic because of Ebola, but the rising cases of the stigmatization of Africans in the wake of few Ebola cases in America has been disconcerting enough that many Africans in America now conceal their identities—whenever they can— to escape taunts and ostracism.
A few days ago, two Senegalese teenagers were viciously clobbered in New York by more than 10 American children who repeatedly called them “Ebola.” Before brutally attacking them, which led to their hospitalization, they were prevented from playing in the school playground and from touching anything other school children played with. Senegal, mind you, had just one Ebola case and is now certified “Ebola-free”—along with Nigeria— by the World Health Organization.
Just this past Wednesday it was also reported that a 7-year-old Nigerian-American girl was banned from attending school in the northeastern state of Connecticut because she and her parents had returned from a trip to Nigeria to attend the wedding of a relative. Her father has sued the school.
Two weeks earlier, Navarro College, a community college in Texas, rescinded the offer of admission it had extended to two Nigerians over Ebola fears. It also said it would no longer accept applications from anywhere in Africa—including southern and eastern Africa where there has been no record of Ebola and which are thousands of miles away from the epicenter of Ebola. But the college said it won’t ban applications from Spain, which has had three confirmed Ebola cases, including two fatalities.
In Mississippi, hundreds of parents rushed to a middle school (equivalent to junior secondary school in Nigeria) to get their children out of school when they heard that the principal of the school had traveled to Zambia in southern Africa to attend his brother’s funeral. The principal was forced to take a “vacation leave” because parents said they would never take their children back to the school as long as he was there.
The Department of Journalism and Media studies at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, also told 14 African journalists scheduled to be on their campus on a US State Department-sponsored journalism exchange program that they didn’t want them again over fears that they were vectors of Ebola. Of the 14 African journalists, three were from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. “After the university decided on Friday not to host the [journalists], the State Department asked over the weekend if the university would reverse its decision if the journalists from Liberia and Sierra Leone would opt out of the program,” the St. Petersburg Tribune reported. But the university still said no.
The 14 African journalists are among “100 of the rising top journalists from around the world” that the US State Department invited to participate in the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists.
Only journalists from Africa were unwelcome on the campus of the University of South Florida.
Other universities that disinvited African journalists over Ebola fears are the University of Georgia (which canceled an invitation it had extended to award-winning Liberian journalist Wade C.L. Williams) and Syracuse University (which disinvited Pulitzer-winning Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille because she’d traveled to Liberia for two weeks, even though she has had no symptom of Ebola weeks after returning from there).
It’s interesting that it’s journalism departments in all three universities—which should know better— that succumbed to irrational fear and legitimized the stigmatization of Africans. Poynter Institute columnist Andrew Beaujon couldn’t be more right when he wrote: “Fearbola has no place at journalism schools. There’s simply too much well-reported information available to justify these jelly-spined responses. Administrators at Newhouse, Grady and USF are teaching their students a dismal lesson: If they fear criticism — or possibly lawsuits — they should back off, facts be damned.”
There are countless other cases of children of African immigrants being arbitrarily isolated from schools or asked to stop coming to school simply because they are Africans who are thought to be carriers of Ebola. It’s getting so bad that African immigrants expect to be deported en masse from America, except that the American government appears to be more sympathetic to Africans than the general population.
Well, I know enough to know that in moments of panic rationality takes a backseat. Plus, Ebola is a strange, insidious disease that epidemiologists are only just now getting to understand. So it’s natural and wise to err on the side of caution. After all, even in West Africa, citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are discriminated against on account of the Ebola outbreaks in their countries. In fact, Ebola survivors are discriminated against in their own countries.
But I frankly didn’t expect this level of Afrophobic hysteria in America, especially in institutions of higher learning—and in journalism departments no less. Universities are supposed to be oases of hope in a desert of gloom and doom. That’s why they are called Ivory Towers.
But the American mass media are even more culpable than educational institutions in the demonization of Africans in the name of reporting on Ebola. In their reports, “Africa” is treated as one mass, undifferentiated place that is afflicted by Ebola. After being called out on their ignorance, the news media no longer talk of “Ebola in Africa”; they now talk of “Ebola in West Africa,” but this is equally inaccurate.
The West African subcontinent is made up of at least 16 countries with a population of over 340 million people. Ebola is found in only three countries—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—and has infected fewer than 5,000 people. That’s a fraction of West Africa. To tar all West Africans with the same Ebola brush is lazy.
One only hopes this knee-jerk Afrophic hysteria in America is a flash in the pan.