It is difficult to tell just how concerned Americans are about Ebola compared to how much the 24-hour-news networks are focusing on it. The general lack of fear, however, has not stopped pockets of Ebola hysteria from popping up on our shores and the most prominent cases are showing up in the places where you would expect the most enlightenment: College campuses. How much will the Ebola virus increase discrimination against African students in America, and what can be done about it? Those are questions not enough pundits are asking right now.
An Outbreak of Discrimination
A Nigerian student’s college application was rejected because of fears over Ebola. Navarro College sent a letter to Idris Ayodeji Bello’s relative living in Richmond, Texas rejecting his application because the school is not accepting students from countries with “confirmed Ebola cases.” The irony of this is that not only is Nigeria the first African nation to be declared “Ebola Free” by the World Health Organization, Navarro College is about 31 miles south of Dallas where the first U.S. Ebola death occurred. This would be a disturbing enough story on its own, unfortunately it is not an isolated incident on campuses across the nation. A group of African journalists (none from countries with known Ebola cases) had a forum at the University of South Florida canceled over “fears” of the spread of Ebola. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner journalist Michel Ducille of the Washington Post was uninvited from speaking at Syracuse University because he had just traveled from Liberia. In Pennsylvania, a high school soccer player from West Africa was heckled with chants of Ebola during a match last week. Of course these are the stories we’ve heard about, who knows how many applications are silently being shuffled to the side, phone calls aren’t being answered and other more subtle behaviors are being employed by colleges across the nation due to ignorance and fear about Ebola.
Unfortunately we’ve seen this all before, just a decade ago when the SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) broke out in China and parts of Asia. Asian students were discriminated against in various colleges across the nation, including UC Berkeley actually banning Summer school students from various Asian countries regardless of the level of threat posed. It’s not as if racism against people of color from abroad, and specifically Africans is new, but the lack of knowledge about the Ebola virus, mixed with the relative ease with which educational institutions can discriminate makes it a much more serious issue.
There are roughly about 25,000 Black African students studying at colleges and universities in the United States. The largest of that group are Nigerians, who account for almost a third of African college students in this country. The rest of the major hotspots like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have only sent about 300 college students to America in the last 6 months and none of those students have turned out to be sick. In other words, the facts don’t back up any sort of legitimate concerns about African students coming to the United States and carrying the disease. If anything, the majority of the cases have come from aid workers flying to hot zones to help, and bringing the disease back, rather than foreigners bringing the disease here. But this doesn’t necessarily help ease a climate of fear on campuses or worse, prevent the silent rejection of applicants based on ignorance.
What’s Being Done Now
Despite the dorm life, shared showers and buffet-style cafeterias most college campuses are not demonstrating panic about Ebola. However, steps are being taken by college organizations to address concerns to lessen the chances of discrimination and cultural biases. The American College Health Association has created a website on how to set up campus health centers. They also offer advice on how to communicate with students, faculty and staff to combat stereotypes and false information. At many major universities across the United States, travel to various parts of Africa for research and volunteering is so common that calls for screening or possible student quarantine is much less racialized and more about legitimate common sense. Schools like the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of Michigan have screened incoming students and Harvard has instructed all students who traveled to hot zones this summer to contact the college. These plans not only are effective but don’t stigmatize a certain race or nationality of students, guests or speakers.
Changes for the Future
Campus discrimination comes in all forms, usually insults, social isolation or just plain old cultural bias from faculty. However the Ebola virus brings forth a whole new set of problems for institutions to tackle. Now students and faculty perhaps already inclined to view students from Africa with disdain or suspicion have an excuse to act on these biases thanks to low information and pockets of hysteria. If, similar to SARS a decade ago, Ebola disappears as a public health threat and out of public consciousness within a few more months this may not be a problem. However, should the virus continue to spread, even in small numbers in the United States it may not be good enough to send out a few emails on campus to warn students about travelling abroad. There may have to be policy actions implemented to make sure that colleges aren’t using a health crisis as an excuse to stem the flow of Africans seeking an education in America.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College and a frequent guest on Al Jazeera, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox Business News. Tweet him: @DrJasonJohnson