Ben Charlson: Racism in practice

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 - 9:00pm

By targeting women, minorities and other vulnerable populations through his tweets and public comments, President Trump has begun to cement his legacy as a bully more than a role model, despite being in office for less than one year.

Last week, Trump added to his history of crude and overtly prejudiced comments at a White House meeting with select senators regarding various immigration policies, including the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, put in place by former President Barack Obama in 2012.

When asked by Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., whether certain countries like Haiti could receive Temporary Protected Status for their undocumented immigrants living in the United States, CNN confirmed Trump said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” In an even more egregious act of racism, Trump went on to describe immigrants from Africa as coming from “shithole countries,” a statement that was not denied by White House spokesperson Raj Shah when asked about it the following evening.

At first glance these statements are shocking, but at this point, should be expected from a president whose power is predicated on the subjugation of outsiders who present a threat to his vision of a white, patriarchal society. And until this racism is wiped from the country’s core institutions, these types of comments from the nation’s leader will only perpetuate this system of inequality.

Above all, DACA is a measure of inclusivity and empathy overshadowed and mitigated by the generally tough immigration policy supported by the Trump administration.

By granting undocumented immigrants protection from immediate deportation and the right to work and study, DACA highlights the empathy with which Obama understood the desperate situation of many children from economically and politically decimated countries who have known nothing but America since immigrating here at a young age.

Many factors might explain the divergence between Obama and Trump’s philosophy on DACA, which Trump announced he would begin to phase out after the proposed bipartisan deal presented a “big step backwards” for immigration policy and the country’s spending deficit.

One powerful factor that cannot be ignored in explaining this dichotomy is race, though it is one that is frequently neglected because of its controversial nature. Trump’s “shithole” comments, undoubtedly fueled by an underlying prejudice against minorities, represent a pervasive problem in a country that prides itself on inclusion and democracy.

Recently in one of my classes, Islam in Africa, we watched a Ted Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie’s lecture has become a popular teaching tool for many historians and sociologists as a way to highlight the consequences of racial stereotypes and generalizations.

Adichie recalled that when she moved from Nigeria to the United States to attend college, she was shocked by the reaction of her American roommate. Not only did the roommate ask to listen to Adichie’s African “tribal music,” but also assumed that she did not know how to use a stove.

While these demeaning generalizations may be in part due to individual prejudice, it is equally if not more a result of institutional racism embedded in our schools, media and politics.

The very course in which I heard this story is not only an objective introduction to the history of Islam in Africa, but an attempt to tear down the misunderstandings and stereotypes attached to each of these topics, the type of sentiment held by President Trump and many others who see Africa and Haiti as “shithole” countries without the means necessary to function in the modern world.

Until America as a whole is educated in more than one “story” of Africa, Haiti and all other countries whose refugees are seeking a better life in the United States, the racism demonstrated by Trump will continue to appear in both everyday life and political policy.

It then becomes the task of us as students to not only learn, but to educate others in a way that emphasizes diversity and inclusion. Trump’s comments will surely perpetuate racist ideology in the United States, but a strong opposition to this rhetoric through education and wholesome media coverage may reverse the flow of this anti-immigrant philosophy.

Ben Charlson can be reached at bencharl@umich.edu.

 

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