Racial Contagion

On 29 April 2009, the first "probable" case of H1N1 or the "swine flu" hit Chicago, Illinois. The alleged carrier of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus was a twelve-year old girl who lived in Rogers Park, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood with a plurality of Mexican and Mexican-American families. To maintain her confidentiality and, indeed, anonymity, the child's name was never released to the news media. However, repeated references in television and print coverage to the Mexican origin of the virus and its appearance within Rogers Park's "majority minority" community left little doubt that the person with H1N1 was a young Mexican girl, a María tifoidea or "typhoid Mary."[1] This unnamed child was the Chicago equivalent of Adela Maria Gutierrez, the tax collector who knocked on hundreds of doors and potentially exposed thousands of people to the virus in Oaxaca, Mexico (Adams 2009, Lacey and Malkin, 2009). Unlike Gutierrez, who was the first person diagnosed with "swine flu" to die, the young girl recovered. She was allowed to return to her elementary school after the Center for Disease Control, in concert with Chicago's Department of Public Health, permitted its reopening.

Ironically, the previous day, the Chicago Department of Public Health was cautiously optimistic about the chances of the swine flu reaching the "Windy City." In its daily update, CDPH issued the following statement: "To date, there are no known cases in Illinois" (2009b). Twenty-four hours later, there was one (María tifoidea) at Kilmer Elementary School. Forty-eight hours later, there were 41 cases in the state and 16 in Chicago, including two in Rogers Park (CDPH 2009a). With two possible cases of swine flu within three blocks of one another, the CDPH dispatched employees to Rogers Park, a neighborhood with a large undocumented population, to conduct a series of "random" home visits. Individuals who elected not to welcome CDPH agents into their homes may have suspected that they either were officers of the INS, Homeland Security, and/or local law enforcement or were likely to share their findings with those organizations. The members of those households, like mine, who answered the door and invited the representatives inside, participated in a performance, a reenactment of the type of behavior - allegedly first performed by Adela Gutierrez - that created the H1N1 outbreak to begin with. CDPH field agents, similar to the recently deceased Mexican woman, travelled door to door to interview people, asking residents about their current health status, recent medical history, and travel during the previous two months.[2] Their visit was presented as a friendly service call - an act of a concerned local governmental agency trying to get a handle on a potential epidemic - and not as a form of racial monitoring. However, it was not difficult to imagine how one could seamlessly and instantly become the other.

Although H1N1 is a serious illness which has infected over 21,000 and, perhaps, upwards of 100,000 people within almost every state in the US, the calls for vigilance against the quickly-moving virus are beginning to parallel past arguments in favor of racial containment (CDC 2009; Hartocollis 2009). Conservative political commentators use the virus as a reason to justify increased security at the US-Mexico border. Along the way they portray Mexicans as an infected, plague-ridden people who, like the antagonists in a horror movie, lurk on the other side of the border, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to infect unsuspecting (non-Mexican) Americans. Radio host Michael Savage offered the following warning to his listeners:

I'm going to talk about the horrible, horrible story of illegal aliens bringing a deadly new flu strain into the United States of America. Make no mistake about it. Illegal aliens are carriers of the new strain of human swine avian flu from Mexico. Make no mistake about it. Our incompetent CDC will keep this from you. Make no mistake about it. This is a disaster (Savage 2009; ADL 2009).

Radio host and FOX News television personality Glenn Beck added, "If you are a mom and dad in Mexico and you know that people around you are dying, but they're not dying in the United States... wouldn't you get in the car and come to the United States and try to get the free health care here?" Critiquing border security, Beck cautioned, "I have been describing this for several years: a perfect storm. I said back in September, there is a perfect storm that has come onshore. I've been talking about it for years and it just came onshore. This is part of it" (Beck 2009).

Even liberal-leaning Democrats seem to agree. Eric Massa, a US Congressman, similarly expressed support for the temporary closure of the US-Mexico border with the aim of preventing potentially infected Mexicans from crossing into the United States. In addition to the Alamo-esque imagery employed by commentators to evoke a scene of thousands of diseased Mexicans rushing an understaffed border, select commentators and elected officials also suggested that the presence of hundreds of thousands of undocumented and illegal residents posed a threat. Each could be harboring and incubating H1N1 and, like a terrorist cell, could damage the nation from within (ADL 2009).

Massa: Close Mexican Border

The Elmira Star-Gazette, a small newspaper in central New York, published the above headline on 29 April 2009, the same day that the Chicago Department of Public Health acknowledged the presence of the swine flu within the city's borders (Finger 2009). The headline, which recounts the desires of a local congressional representative (Massa), also gestures toward a more sordid history of US racial control. It is a statement that conjures the spirit of a series of past enactments in which allegations of the dangers of contagion, frequently supported by prevailing ideas in medical science, were employed to justify the abuse of minoritized communities. In the slavery economy of the United States prior to the Civil War, the fear of racial contagion through the mixing of "black" and "white" blood prompted legislators to create laws and mandate punishments to prevent plantation masters and overseers from having sexual relationships with their slaves. However, once the profits and pleasures of the "natural increase" of black captives on plantations were realized, these laws were changed to punish only white women for having sexual relationships with black male captives. Even after slavery was formally abolished, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes and vigilante enforcement (such as lynching campaigns) managed the perceived threat of racial contagion.

Despite efforts to enforce borders and border-crossings, the US minority population has steadily increased. Today, nearly ten percent of all counties are "majority minority," in which more than half of the population is comprised of a group that is "not single-race, non-Hispanic white." In addition, four states - California, Hawaii, Texas and New Mexico - and the District of Columbia have minority populations greater than fifty percent and five other states—Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi and New York—"are next in line with minority populations of about 40 percent" (U.S. Census 2005). In response to the changing demographics of counties, cities, and states, a series of protectionist movements have been launched to preserve the "American" way of life and "rule of law." These include organizations like Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project which not only lobbies local, regional and national elected representatives to more closely monitor and police the US-Mexico border but also literally patrols the nation's borders and monitors the activities of allegedly illegal communities within the US. Currently, the Minuteman Project operates 37 chapters in 22 states (Minuteman Project 2009). In addition, "English Only" platforms, championed by an array of conservative-leaning special interest groups, have lobbied elected officials to make English the official language of the US.[3] Although they have failed to garner support for a constitutional amendment initiative, "English Only" organizations have succeeded—through state constitutional amendments, referendums, and legislative actions—in getting 30 states, including 25 since 1984, to adopt English as the official (and usually the only) language employed in all state-sponsored paperwork, from voter registration forms to driver's license applications.

The call for greater vigilance in stemming the spread of H1N1, when understood against the backdrop of patrolling Minutemen, "English Only" activists, and previous legislative and social performances designed to prevent the spread of racial contagion, makes it difficult to disassociate the anxieties over the influence of Mexicans and other minority populations within the US from the concerns over a strain of influenza that appears to have originated in Mexico. In this process of entanglement, the virus gets personified - represented within public discourse as being tantamount to undocumented and illegal Mexicans. It crosses borders. It threatens to reproduce uncontrollably and, in so doing, threatens to overwhelm every residential community. In order to curtail its spread, it must be stopped at the border. Not only must the border be policed to prevent its crossing, it must be closed to lessen the number that slips through checkpoints. Once located, the virus must be policed, monitored, and ultimately contained to ensure that it does not spread among the general population.

Concerns over contagion, especially over diseases ascribed to minority communities, is not new. While caution is necessary in coping with this aggressive strain of the influenza virus, it is important to recall the ways in which the fear of racial contagion, when framed within public health discourse or national security debates, has motivated policies more damaging than the "contagion" itself. Closed borders, legalized captivity, and governmentally sanctioned mob justice have been employed to eliminate or contain a threat closely aligned with a particular minority group at various moments within US history. As the nation reviews its playbook to find a strategy to best cope with H1N1, the challenge is to identify policy options that do not redeploy the abusive tactics of the past.

Harvey Young is an assistant professor at Northwestern University with appointments in Theatre and Performance Studies. He is the author of Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010). He is currently editing, with Ramón Rivera-Servera, Performance in the Borderlands: A Critical Anthology (London: Palgrave Macmillan, under contract).


 [1] Several newspapers referred to Adela Maria Gutierrez as "Typhoid Mary." See Adams 2009.

 [2] According to various news reports, Guitierrez was employed as a "field worker" and a "census taker" for a government-affiliated agency. See Adams 2009, Lacey and Malkin 2009.

 [3] There are a variety of loosely affiliated "English Only" organizations. They include, U.S. English, an organization of immigrants who champion "unifying role of the English language in the United States" and Pro English (English Language Advocates), a legal advocacy group provides pro bono services to local and state governments.

Works Cited

Adams, Guy. 2009. "Swine Flu: Was 1st Victim a Modern Typhoid Mary?" The Independent: 29 April.

Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 2009. "Pundits, Bloggers Blame Immigration for the Swine Flu." 8 May. (accessed 3 June 2009).

Beck, Glenn. 2009. "Could Swine Flu Outbreak Destroy Mexico's Economy?" Fox News. 28 April. (Accessed 3 June 2009)

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 2001. "Federal Bureau of Prisons: Quick Facts" (Accessed 3 June 2009)

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2009. "Novel H1N1 Flu Situation Update." 19 June. (Accessed 25 June 2009)

Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). 2009a. "Flu Case Numbers Rising." 30 April.

--------.2009b. "Still No Cases, But Everone Should 'Think Preventive.'" 28 April.

Finger, Ray. 2009. "Massa: Close Mexican Border." Elmira Star Gazette: 29 April. (Accessed 3 June 2009).

Gilchrist, Jim. 2009. "Official Minuteman Chapters." Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project: 25 May. (Accessed 3 June 2009).

Hartocollis, Anemona. 2009. "New York Reports Its First Swine Flu Death." New York Times: 17 May.

Lacey, Marc and Elisabeth Malkin. 2009. "First Flu Death Provides Clues to Mexico Toll." New York Times: 30 April.

Ratner, Lizzy. 2003. "The Legacy of Guantanamo." The Nation: 14 July. (Accessed 3 June 2009).

Savage, Michael. 2009. The Savage Nation: 24 April.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2005. "Texas Becomes Nation's Newest "Majority-Minority" State, Census Bureau Announces." U.S. Census Bureau News. 11 August. (Accessed 3 June 2009).