The outbreak of covid-19 has exposed how weaknesses in the social safety net make us more vulnerable to the spread of pandemic disease. But outbreaks can expose, and exacerbate, another fault line in society: racism. President Trump’s insistence on labeling the coronavirus a “Chinese” virus, for example, appears to be linked to an uptick in hate crimes.
An outbreak of illness in Louisiana in the aftermath of the Civil War shows just how dangerous disease can be as a weapon in the hands of racist or incompetent officials — an essential lesson we must apply to the current pandemic crisis.
In the spring of 1866, just after the federal government formally ended slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment, Capt. Azor Howitt Nickerson served under the shadow of a looming epidemic. Nickerson was stationed in Bayou Sara, La., in 1866 as part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency tasked with protecting the interests of freedpeople — African Americans who had, until very recently, been enslaved. Although instructed to prevent former enslavers from trying to resurrect slavery, Nickerson and many of his peers in the bureau were unsympathetic to black equality and cared little about the well-being of African Americans, and this informed their response to public health crises.
When widespread smallpox and yellow fever outbreaks erupted in Louisiana in the aftermath of the war, it was in large part due to the racist neglect and incompetence of local and federal officials. Nickerson, for example, wrote that he was visited by an African American man who was “taken [horribly] ill in front of [my] house and was hardly able to return to the house from which he came.” Rather than offering help or treatment, Nickerson sent the man away in a panic. He was more concerned about being infected himself than making sure the sick man received treatment.
To control the spread of smallpox, Nickerson met with both the ex-Confederate mayor of Bayou Sara and the town’s doctor, Patterson Whicher. Together, they hatched a plan to contain the disease by isolating the African Americans who were infected.
Before emancipation, enslavers had theorized that enslaved African Americans were immune to diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox. After slavery, however, they argued that the susceptibility of black Louisianans to the diseases signified their racial inferiority. Although their logic seemed inconsistent, it reflected their fundamental belief that slavery was natural and necessary for black people. So long as African Americans were enslaved, slave owners theorized, they were better off.
This ideology even infected the ideas and policies of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Across the river from Nickerson in Pointe Coupee, La., the local bureau agent theorized that black workers themselves were at fault for falling sick because of “the kind of food they live on which is fish garden vegetable and mellons etc.”
Black workers were at greater risk than other groups for disease, but this was due to the poor working and living conditions African Americans endured. The postwar contracts created by white planters forced formerly enslaved people to remain in the fields through the entire year, even when the risk for epidemics spiked. Their poor diet and cramped living conditions, also structured by former slave owners, consistently placed African Americans among the riskiest populations for smallpox and yellow fever. Then, as now, the prevailing social structures left little room for the working poor to miss work and get treatment.
Nickerson, the mayor and the doctor agreed that infected black people would be sent out of town to fend for themselves. Banishing infected people from town condemned them to almost certain death while threatening to spread the disease to anyone with whom they had contact. The plan failed to promote the public good and was designed, instead, to serve the interests of the town’s white property owners and officials, to protect not only their own health but the productivity of their black workers.
In post-emancipation Louisiana, white plantation owners were above all concerned with ensuring the continuity of their workforce. And although federal officials in the Freedmen’s Bureau were there to protect the new freedom of black Americans, they too worried that formerly enslaved people would refuse to work on plantations for wages. They worked to ensure that African Americans signed contracts to work on white-owned plantations because they could not imagine an alternative to the plantation system despite African American demands for equity and opportunity beyond the ghost of plantation slavery. For Nickerson, this meant working closely with white elites, whatever the cost to the few black workers expelled for getting sick or to the public health of those outside of town.
Instead of following this plan to banish black patients from town, however, the doctor began sending infected African Americans to Nickerson’s doorstep, directly threatening his health.
Nickerson’s ex-Confederate collaborators saw black patients as an opportunity to overturn federal constraints on white power. Whicher publicly boasted about the strategy and Nickerson recalled that he “sent word that it was his instruction to ‘give the freedmans bureau hell.’” Like many ex-Confederates, the doctor and local officials had fought to protect slavery and hated the Freedmen’s Bureau for offering basic protections against violence and the most brazen exploitation to African Americans after emancipation. Although they reluctantly worked with Nickerson, they seized the opportunity presented by the epidemic to eliminate any constraint on their power.
Nickerson suspected that the doctor was working with local officials to either kill him or force him to resign, which would prevent formerly enslaved men and women from filing complaints about the racist abuse and exploitation they faced. Though far from perfect, the bureau’s willingness to receive these complaints helped African Americans pressure former enslavers to pay them wages and prevented enslavers from resurrecting chattel slavery outright.
Nickerson confronted Whicher, who flew into a rage, announcing that he would send “any god damned N----- case of small pox he could get to this office” to threaten Nickerson. Nickerson believed the town’s leaders were weaponizing sick people to spread disease and undermine the work of the bureau. He wrote his commander that “I have proof and can sustain the charge against Dr. Patterson V. Whicher of willfully and maliciously attempting to spread a dangerous and Malignant disease.”
Although men like Nickerson and Whicher ultimately agreed that sick African Americans were unworthy of protection from illness, it wasn’t enough for Louisiana’s white elites. They wanted the enemies of the former Confederacy, including Nickerson and the Freedmen’s Bureau, to suffer infection as well, so that they might shake off even this partial limit on white power.
We can see in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak echoes of the response to the smallpox outbreak of 1866, both in its baseline neglect and in its effort to weaponize the disease for political purpose. Rather than taking active measures to expand testing and encourage self-quarantine when it could, the Trump administration blamed the spread of the virus on foreigners and banned travel. Administration officials and Republican allies pushed conspiracy theories, claimed that the virus itself is “political” and argued that Democrats are engaging in “virus terrorism” for raising public health concerns.
It appears that, like Whicher, Trump has tried to use an epidemic to attack political enemies, no matter the human cost. And as with Whicher, Trump has repeatedly shown that he cares more about shoring up his political power than ensuring that poor and vulnerable patients get adequate medical treatment, let alone the paid sick time and health care everyone needs to slow the spread of the illness. This tactic makes each of us more vulnerable to illness, unemployment and privation while increasing the risk that the administration will double down on xenophobia, leading to racist violence. If we are to remain well, we must not only understand the disease we face but the underlying sickness of white supremacy that brought it to our doorstep.