Disease Theory & Discrimination

Disease Theory & Discrimination

Almost all Americans are immigrants or descended from immigrants, and yet the United States has historically been very hostile to new immigration. In the 1800s and early 1900s, opponents of immigration used diseases as a “scientific” justification for discriminating against immigrants. They associated particular national and ethnic groups with specific diseases. For example, Italians were accused of carrying polio, Irish were associated with cholera, and Jewish people were accused of carrying tuberculosis.

This association varied between the two coasts. Trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eyes, was associated on the East Coast with immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. However, on the West Coast, trachoma was seen as “peculiarly Asian.” Immigrants from Asia, especially Chinese and Japanese immigrants, were much more aggressively screened than other groups.

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Medical officers at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco are seen here inspecting recently arrived immigrants. Immigration officials looking for trachoma frequently used their fingers or button hooks to turn eyelids inside out.

These medical examinations were often used to limit immigration. A diagnosis of trachoma was used to justify over a third of all deported Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the 1900s. Angel Island Immigration Station was specifically created to hold Asian immigrants during the grueling inspections and interrogations, which usually lasted two to three weeks, even when everything was in order. One man was detained on Angel Island for over two years.

Image courtesy of the National Archives

“Even while they are tyrannical they still
claim to be humanitarian.”

—Anonymous poem from Angel Island Immigration Station
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Immigrants detained on Angel Island often reflected on their experience by carving poetry into the wooden walls.

Image courtesy of the Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

“We know that whatever “immigrant menace” was the focus of xenophobes in the past…the claim has always been that these groups were not only racially inferior, but that they brought particularly dangerous and contagious diseases that would end up harming the US native population.”

—Erika Lee, professor of immigration history
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The aggressive medical screening of immigrants from Asia meant that they were often screened multiple times: when they left their home country, at every port at which they stopped, and on arrival in the United States. This is a passport of a Japanese immigrant to the United States.

Image courtesy of Julia Hansen

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Even after immigrants safely entered the country they were still subjected to this medical racism. In 1906 the San Francisco school board attempted to ban Japanese students from white schools, claiming that they would infect white children with trachoma. In actuality, not a single Japanese student had trachoma.

Here is a poster for a meeting of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League in San Francisco in support of the segregation of public schools.

Image courtesy of National Museum of American History via Wikimedia Commons

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Racial assumptions about disease can be dangerous. When a case of bubonic plague was discovered in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900, all Asians were forcibly quarantined, but no one stopped white tourists from coming and going as they pleased. The mayor of San Francisco believed that whites were immune to the plague.

Many people blamed malaria, smallpox, and leprosy on the immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Image courtesy of the University of California-Berkeley Bancroft Library

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Popular depictions of Chinese culture characterized it as dirty and diseased.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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During the city’s bubonic plague outbreak in 1900, San Francisco only enforced a quarantine on the East Asian population. Whites were allowed to come and go from the quarantined areas freely.

Image courtesy of the University of California-Berkeley Law School

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While SARS is technically not named after a place and stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the fact that it originated in China sparked racial backlash against Asians all over the globe, particularly in Toronto.

Image courtesy of Daryl Cagle