You’ve read all about “black bodies.” Soon we’ll be reading all about the racist injustice being performatively performed on “black antibodies.”
From the New York Times opinion page:
We’ve seen what happens when people with immunity to a deadly disease are given special treatment. It isn’t pretty.
By Kathryn Olivarius
Kathryn Olivarius is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming “Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom.”
April 12, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET
… The likes of Glenn Beck and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas have fashioned the willingness to endure a bout with coronavirus as a patriotic, pro-economy act; Germany, Italy, and Britain are all toying with notions of “immunity passports” — proof that a person has beaten Covid-19 — that would allow people with antibodies to go back to work faster.
That people could wield their hard-earned “immunocapital” to save the economy sounds like science fiction. But as we wait months or years for a viable vaccine, leveraging peoples’ antibodies may well be part of our economic strategy. If so, we should heed lessons from the past and beware of the potential social perils. As a historian, my research has focused on a time and place — the 19th-century Deep South — that once operated by a very similar logic, only with a far more lethal and fearsome virus: yellow fever. Immunity on a case-by-case basis did permit the economy to expand, but it did so unevenly: to the benefit of those already atop the social ladder, and at the expense of everyone else. When a raging virus collided with the forces of capitalism, immunological discrimination became just one more form of bias in a region already premised on racial, ethnic, gender and financial inequality.
Yellow fever, a mosquito-borne flavivirus, was inescapable in the 19th-century Deep South and a point of near-constant terror in New Orleans, the region’s hub. In the six decades between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War, New Orleans experienced 22 full-blown epidemics, cumulatively killing over 150,000 people. (Perhaps another 150,000 died in nearby American cities.) The virus killed about half of all those it infected and it killed them horribly, with many victims vomiting thick black blood, the consistency and color of coffee grounds. The lucky survivors became “acclimated,” or immune for life.
Antebellum New Orleans was a slave society where whites dominated free people of color and enslaved people though legally sanctioned violence. But another invisible hierarchy came to co-mingle with the racial order; white “acclimated citizens” stood atop the social pyramid, followed by white “unacclimated strangers,” followed by everyone else. Surviving yellow fever was locally known as the “baptism of citizenship:” proof that a white person had been chosen by God and had established himself as a legitimate and permanent player in the Cotton Kingdom.
Immunity mattered. “Unacclimated” white people were considered unemployable. As the German immigrant Gustav Dresel lamented in the 1830s, “I looked around in vain for a position as bookkeeper,” but “to engage a young man who was not acclimated would be a bad speculation.” Life insurers rejected unacclimated applicants outright or else charged a hefty “climate premium.” If you were white, immunity-status impacted where you lived, how much you earned, your ability to get credit, and whom you were able to marry. …
But immunity was more than a product of epidemiological luck. In the context of the Deep South, it was wielded as a weapon. From the start, wealthy white New Orleanians made sure that while mosquitoes were equal-opportunity vectors, yellow fever would be anything but colorblind. Pro-slavery theorists used yellow fever to argue that racial slavery was natural, even humanitarian, because it allowed whites to socially distance themselves; they could stay at home, in relative safety, if black people were forced to labor and trade on their behalf. In 1853, the “Weekly Delta” newspaper claimed, ludicrously, that three-quarters of all deaths from yellow fever were among abolitionists.
Black people, with limited access to health care, were of course as scared of yellow fever as anyone else.
Actually, blacks were much less likely to die of yellow fever, a West African disease, than were whites (much less poor American Indians).
But those enslaved people who’d acquired immunity increased their monetary value to their owners by up to 50 percent. In essence, black people’s immunity became white people’s capital.
Yellow fever did not make the South into a slave society, but it widened the divide between rich and poor.
Human biodiversity in resistance to different diseases explains much about why blacks were valued as slaves in the warmer parts of the New World, where they outsurvived whites and Amerindians, but not in the colder parts, where they tended to die of respiratory infections in larger numbers.
High mortality, it turns out, was economically profitable for New Orleans’s most powerful citizens because yellow fever kept wage workers insecure, and so unable to bargain effectively.
That sounds dubious. I’m sure the disease risk kept the supply of labor low, driving up wages.
As I pointed out in my column last year, “Alternative America,” about what American history would have been like without slavery, the disease burden problem explains much about the economic usefulness of slavery. If America had foregone slavery, the main difference would have been the South would have been populated more slowly:
Granted, an America without slavery would not have developed the lowland Deep South as rapidly as it did, much as Florida south of the panhandle was largely empty until the 20th century. For example, Miami was not incorporated until 1896, at which point it was estimated that only 1,800 souls resided in the area. In 1900, barely a half million people lived in the entire state of Florida, compared with 21 million today.
And yet, the failure of Americans to do much with the bulk of the Florida peninsula until the 20th century does not loom depressingly in contemporary thinking.
Similarly, if the cotton belt centered on Mississippi and Alabama had taken a few more generations to develop due to the requirement to either pay free white workers high enough wages or to develop better technology that could do without them, I doubt if Americans in our alternative 2019 would lament this history any more than Americans today mourn all the oranges that weren’t grown in Florida in the 19th century.
That said, New Orleans was so strategically important controlling the entrance and exit of the Mississippi watershed that it would have had to have been populated, although perhaps the US would have concentrated military might further up at the Vicksburg chokepoint.