It is an old story. We divide those who are different from us by categorizing them as stereotypes. And when those stereotypes are markedly negative; it makes the other, something to be shunned, something to be feared as a threat, something to control, something to be destroyed. It makes the other into some thing instead of a person with dignity and worth.
It is actually a very dangerous game. Someone somewhere is going to hear these opinions and decide it is time to make a stand against the other; especially if that someone feels themselves powerless in their own circumstances. We have seen this scenario before. The shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN was because a man was down and out. He felt powerless to address his circumstances and he had heard on radio and TV that the blame was to be placed squarely on the liberal politicians in Washington, DC. He didn’t feel he had a chance to exact revenge on them so he chose a group of people who he felt sure had placed those liberals in power.
So it is with alarm when I heard Leland Whaley of Leland Live on WAPI radio based in Birmingham, AL turn a story about one case of Hepatitis A in Northport, AL into a story about immigrants being vectors of disease. It was pure speculation on his part. The employee at the McDonald’s was never identified as being of any specific nationality or race. Yet, Leland felt duty bound to proclaim immigrants as the cause for this one case of Hepatitis A. He was “just askin’ ” the questions that no one was asking, he said. This is a disease that can be spread by poor hygiene, as in infected restaurant employees not washing their hands after using the restroom. He implied that immigrants, especially those from south of our border, do not have the hygiene skills to wash their hands after restroom use. He went on to proclaim that Hepatitis is on the rise in this country and it is directly because of the millions of immigrants who have entered this country from countries like Mexico.
It isn’t true. Hepatitis A infection rates are not on the rise in this country. In fact, the health department reported that Hepatitis A is trending downward in this country[i], 90% decline of cases over the last 20 years. Twenty Years! And Western Alabama has about one or two cases of Hepatitis A every year. Not exactly an outbreak. Not exactly something to get all freaked out about.
Leland Whaley further stated that TB rates were on the rise in the US because of immigrants. Again, this is not true. TB infection rates are also on the decline in the US. And rates of infection among Latinos are among the lowest when looking at TB prevalence in ethnic groups in the US.[ii]
Yet, Leland Whaley suggests blame of one case of Hepatitis to an entire population of immigrants and then lumps in TB infections to further denigrate and label a population of people as vectors of disease. This is at best irresponsible journalism. At worst it is hate-mongering geared towards driving yet another divide between us and them. In this case the US are white people and the THEM are immigrants. To make such assertions of a group of people being vectors of disease is to spread fear into the population to keep the focus off the real issues affecting the nation.
Whenever a nation begins to denigrate people living within its borders by associating people with diseases, with crime, with violent behavior that nation begins the path towards displaying the ugly side of humanity. It is a step towards removing the humanity of these individuals. When people are no longer seen as human, then it becomes easier to normalize behaviors of denigration and oppression. It becomes acceptable to round people up like cattle, pass harsh criminal punishments for non-violent offenses, and justify these actions as a public health and safety precaution. We can then turn our eyes away when self proclaimed crime fighters hunt down an unarmed teenager because the media reporters have already reduced black teens who wear hoodies into violent threats. Now the media is trying to reduce Latinos into vectors of disease. How soon will it be until someone comes up with a tried and true method of eliminating alleged vectors of disease?
Leland Whaley owes a public apology to the Latino community in Alabama. We have already seen far too many times in this country when hateful rhetoric is heard by unstable individuals in this country. Leland Whaley needs to be held accountable to his rhetoric on Alabama’s airwaves.