TV star Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett is a symbol of just how overtly the racist dehumanization of people of color continues to play out in Trump’s America. On the same day as that controversy, news broke of a far higher death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year than was previously reported. A Harvard University study published in The New England Journal of Medicine estimated that more than 4,600 Puerto Rican deaths were attributable to the hurricane – a number several orders of magnitude greater than the official US estimate of 64. Because the study extrapolated numbers from a small sample size, the actual death toll could be as low as 800 or as high as 8,000.
In comparison, the 2005 devastation from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was linked to about 1,800 deaths. In that instance, people across the United States and even the world watched scenes of devastation in horror, and they rightly blamed George W Bush’s administration for inaction and a botched response to the calamity that mostly affected African-Americans. In the case of Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking U.S. territory, President Trump has not been held nearly as accountable in the court of public opinion for the government’s poor response to the hurricane disaster, in part because of the undercount of deaths.
The message that the lives of people of color are worth less is also felt around the world – such as in countries where the US wages wars, like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, or where the US supports Israel’s violence against Palestinians in Gaza. The people of color who inhabit these lands are considered expendable, their lives subject to the whims of “collateral damage.”
Those people of color who flee our wars are also met with contempt abroad. In France, Malian refugee Mamoudou Gassama, who risked his life crossing the Mediterranean, was offered French citizenship after carrying out a bold rescue of a child dangling from a fourth-floor balcony in Paris. As political commentator Wajahat Ali noted wryly on Twitter, “In order to be seen as a human, a migrant has to literally leap, climb tall buildings and save lives.” The rest of the refugee population in France and Europe at large struggles daily to be seen as human.
Here in the United States, even acts of incredible heroism by people of color don’t guarantee attention from our current head of state. Three weeks after a black man named James Shaw risked his life to tackle a shooter at a Waffle House in Tennessee, Trump reached out to him in a phone call that Shaw described as “lackluster”. Meanwhile the president was victorious in his push to silence black people from speaking out about racism when the NFL decided recently to fine football players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. Trump had conflated peaceful anti-racist protests by players with disrespect for the US military and the flag, and the NFL appears to have capitulated.
Black communities in the US know intimately what the project of dehumanization feels like. When two men were arrested on April 12 at a Philadelphia Starbucks, it was business as usual in America. This week as Starbucks closed shop en masse for a high-profile afternoon racial sensitivity training session for its staff in light of the incident, the corporation hoped to fix the problem in one fell swoop while restoring its liberal reputation. Despite the fact that the training will likely fall far short of what is needed, and is probably a major publicity stunt, it is a start. But there were two sets of perpetrators during the arrest: the white manager who called the cops on the black men, and the officers who believed the manager and hauled the men away in handcuffs without determining properly if they deserved to be arrested. When will police be required to receive anti-racist training? It is precisely this sort of racist mistreatment by police that NFL players like Colin Kaepernick were protesting and that the NFL and Trump have decided to ignore.
We see over and over the dehumanization of people of color in our country and our world. As I concluded in my recent documentary “Making America Racist Again,” racism was not invented by Trump, the Republicans or conservatives. It is built into the fabric of this country right from the start, through the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the exploitation of immigrant labor and more. The systems that dehumanize people of color have remained largely bipartisan even in recent years, as detrimental policies aimed at people of color were being quietly pursued by Democrats and President Obama when they held political power (e.g., unchecked police brutality, disproportionate incarceration of people of color, mass detention of undocumented mothers and children). Now Trump and the GOP are able to point out Democratic hypocrisy and have ratcheted up those horrors. Trump has even repeatedly used the term “animals” to refer to his favored anti-immigrant symbol, the MS-13 gang.
A case in point is a set of photos of undocumented immigrant children being held in metal cages that a news outlet recently posted alongside an article about Trump’s policy of separating children from undocumented parents. Except that those photos, which were widely shared on social media, were from 2014, when Obama’s approach also resulted in immigrant suffering (though the children pictured were actually unaccompanied minors, not separated from their parents by U.S. authorities). Now Trump and his defenders are scoring political points because the Democrats simply did not do enough to distinguish themselves from Republicans on immigration.
Just as a border patrol agent recently shot a young undocumented Guatemalan woman named Claudia Patricia Gómez González, under Obama another border patrol agent fatally shot an immigrant youth through the US border fence with Mexico. That agent was just acquitted of all charges in the killing of 16-year old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. Of course, Trump is worse than Obama, but not by as much as you’d probably assume. The Democratic Party ought to be as clearly distinct from its rivals as possible on the issues of immigration and race – not interchangeable, as the embarrassing photos of immigrant children being held in metal cages suggest.
There are deep, systemic approaches to addressing racism that go well beyond a four-hour training session or the cancellation of a racist’s TV show.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Racism Keeps Rearing Its Ugly Head’.