What We Can Learn About Racism From The Swine Flu Scare: Analysis

Front-page images of Mexican soldiers wearing surgical masks and armed with machine guns; 71 healthy Mexican citizens quarantined for two weeks in a Hong Kong hotel; a congresswoman from New York declaring that the border with Mexico should be "immediately and completely closed;" countries like Argentina and Cuba banning travel to Mexico; an Israeli-led campaign to change the name of the mysterious disease from swine flu to "Mexican flu."

And then, at long last, news from Mexico's Health Minister, José Angel Cordova declared that the death toll of the swine flu had been "less than feared." The dreaded H1N1 virus, that had originally been blamed for over 170 deaths in Mexico had killed only 50 -- giving it a mortality rate comparable with that of the regular flu.

Now that the panic about the H1N1 virus has subsided, perhaps it's time to examine the alarm it triggered. The overwrought response by the media and the governments of various countries not only amounted to a public relations crisis for Mexico (which has already lost an estimated two billion dollars in tourism revenue), it also reeked of racism.

I'm in no place to rebuke other nations for their actions; but, Americans, ask yourself this: if the outbreak had occurred in Canada, rather than Mexico, would we have been as frightened? If the people it infected were white (rather than brown) and comfortingly middle class (rather than poor, and lacking health care), would the world have felt as threatened? And what U.S. lawmaker would dare to request -- or even consider viable -- an immediate and complete closure of the Canadian border?

The answer, inevitably, is no and none. Because we lack precedent for discriminating against Canada, the keepers of our collective consciousness (i.e., the government and the media) would be unable to evoke stereotypes when addressing an outbreak in that country. To wit: if Americans didn't stereotype Mexico as a lawless and violent place, the image of machine-gun toting police in surgical masks -- a fearsome sight, to be sure -- would never have appeared on the Washington Post's front page. And without the preexisting debate about building a wall to stem illegal immigration, the useless measure of closing the border would never have been floated.

Finally, if Americans didn't fundamentally doubt the ability of the Mexican government to manage crises -- an unfounded concern that resulted from the media blitz surrounding the drug war and from the Joint Forces Command's February declaration that Mexico could become a failed state -- we would never would have assumed that 17 deaths could explode into a global pandemic.

Prejudice against Mexico and its citizens is pervasive in the United States. Americans are happy enough to party on its pristine beaches and show-off the colorful textiles they haggled for in touristy Oaxaca markets -- but 30 percent of us think that illegal Mexicans currently working in the U.S. should simply leave (immediately and completely); and 52 percent supported the 2008 effort to construct a 700-mile-long fence along the border. As a caller who voiced his opinion to a CNN panel about swine flu recently summarized: "We should build that wall -- it'll keep out the drugs and the disease."

As Mexican revolutionary Porfirio Díaz once famously said: poor Mexico -- so far from God, so close to the United States.

If we can learn anything from this flu scare -- and why wouldn't we want to salvage something from the debacle? -- it's that Americans are profoundly prejudiced against Mexico. And we're either unaware or unashamed of our bias. But to be sure, if our southern neighbor were France or England, we would never have employed such insulting vocabulary and imagery to discuss the virus. Call it racism, classism, xenophobia, or whatever other 'ism' you fancy -- it's most likely that our reaction derived from a nasty combination of all those societal ills. To his credit, President Barack Obama avoided such pitfalls by exhorting calm and referring to the virus exclusively as H1N1. But shame on the media for exploiting Americans' racism to create hype, and shame on us for eating it up.

Catesby Holmes is an Assistant Editor at Travel + Leisure magazine

Get HuffPost World On Facebook and Twitter!