Centrist Dems May Not Call Black and Brown Communities Shitholes—But They Treat Them That Way

The loud denunciations of Trump serve to hide liberal racism.

Benji Hart January 19, 2018

Democratic senators question Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Jan. 16 about Trump's "shithole" remarks in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and countries on the African continent. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dur­ing a bipar­ti­san meet­ing this week, Pres­i­dent Trump alleged­ly referred to immi­grants from Haiti, El Sal­vador, and the African con­ti­nent as com­ing from shit­hole coun­tries.” Why, he asked, were so many of their peo­ple being let into the U.S.?

Rather than decrying Trump’s use of the word “shithole,” I wanted to see liberals held accountable for the policies they’ve enacted that treat Black and Brown communities like shitholes—both across the globe and in the U.S.

The denun­ci­a­tions came rapid­ly and from every cor­ner of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Hillary Clin­ton called the com­ments igno­rant” and racist.” Her hus­band tweet­ed that the coun­tries Trump described do not exist” in his expe­ri­ence, prais­ing Haitians as cre­ative, hard work­ing, brave, and per­sis­tent.” Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel took advan­tage of the moment to cel­e­brate Jean Bap­tiste Point Du Sable, the Hait­ian man known as the city’s founder.

I wished that, instead of bela­bor­ing seman­tics and extolling excep­tion­al immi­grants, the lib­er­al estab­lish­ment had acknowl­edged its role in cre­at­ing a glob­al refugee crisis:

Black and Brown peo­ple from across the plan­et fre­quent­ly relo­cate to the U.S. because cen­turies of U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion (like Obama’s pre­ci­sion” drone strikes that killed hun­dreds of civil­ians in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Soma­lia), U.S.-funded coups and civ­il wars (as in the Carter administration’s spon­sor­ship of El Salvador’s mur­der­ous right-wing régime in the 1980s), and the extrac­tion of resources by U.S. cor­po­ra­tions (recall Pres­i­dent Clinton’s sub­si­diz­ing of U.S. rice in Haiti, upend­ing the local econ­o­my) have ren­dered their home­lands unliv­able, forc­ing them to seek refuge with­in the very empire respon­si­ble for the con­di­tions they are fleeing.

Rather than decry­ing Trump’s use of the word shit­hole,” I want­ed to see lib­er­als held account­able for the poli­cies they’ve enact­ed that treat Black and Brown com­mu­ni­ties like shit­holes — both across the globe and in the U.S.

This week on CNN, con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dit Stephanie Hamill rebuffed attacks on the pres­i­dent, attempt­ing to demon­strate the ways the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion has long exploit­ed the Hait­ian peo­ple. Though many con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about the foun­da­tion have been debunked, it is indeed respon­si­ble for dis­plac­ing farm­ers to build for­eign-based tex­tile fac­to­ries—doing far more to take advan­tage of cheap labor in the wake of the 2010 earth­quake than to build eco­nom­ic self-deter­mi­na­tion for Haitians.

Lib­er­als across the media scoff at such con­ser­v­a­tive argu­ments, call­ing them deflec­tions. But lib­er­al attacks on Trump’s lan­guage serve a sim­i­lar pur­pose — to por­tray them­selves as moral by con­trast, while paper­ing over the equal­ly racist impacts of their own practices.

While a quick sur­vey of for­eign pol­i­cy unearths a long his­to­ry of lib­er­al vio­lence against Black and Brown peo­ple, one need hard­ly look to the past — nor out­side of the U.S. — to locate glar­ing exam­ples of lib­er­al racism.

In Chica­go, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty strate­gist-turned-may­or Rahm Emanuel is clos­ing all four remain­ing pub­lic high schools in Engle­wood — one of the poor­est, Black­est neigh­bor­hoods in the city — even as his admin­is­tra­tion gears up to build a $95 mil­lion police train­ing facil­i­ty in the equal­ly Black and impov­er­ished neigh­bor­hood of Garfield Park. In Bal­ti­more, Demo­c­ra­t­ic city offi­cials forced Black kids to go to class last week in build­ings at freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, after recent­ly open­ing their own new juve­nile deten­tion facil­i­ty.

In oth­er words, Demo­c­ra­t­ic and lib­er­al lead­er­ship rou­tine­ly treat Black and Brown com­mu­ni­ties as worth­less and dis­pos­able, suit­able for pun­ish­ment rather than invest­ment. No one has report­ed Emanuel or any mem­ber of Baltimore’s city gov­ern­ment using vul­gar­i­ties in ref­er­ence to the com­mu­ni­ties their actions tar­get. But do we need them to, in order to intu­it the deep dis­dain for peo­ple of col­or at work?

The inabil­i­ty of lib­er­als to hold them­selves and their elect­ed offi­cials account­able for racist prac­tices, while they explode with out­rage every time some­one from the Trump camp makes a sen­sa­tion­al­ly big­ot­ed com­ment, reveals the role Trump plays for lib­er­als: He is a con­ve­nient cov­er for their own racism, and for the ways lib­er­al and con­ser­v­a­tive poli­cies alike are desta­bi­liz­ing Black and Brown com­mu­ni­ties worldwide.

I first under­stood how Trump’s val­ues mir­rored those of lib­er­als dur­ing his response to the vio­lence in Char­lottesville. After he declined at a Trump Tow­er press con­fer­ence to renounce Nazis, claim­ing there were fine peo­ple on both sides,” he com­ment­ed about the removal of Con­fed­er­ate statues:

George Wash­ing­ton was a slave owner…So, will George Wash­ing­ton now lose his sta­tus? Are we going to take down stat­ues to George Wash­ing­ton? How about Thomas Jefferson?…Because he was a major slave own­er. Are we going to take down his statue?”

Here, Trump grap­pled with a real­iza­tion white peo­ple across the polit­i­cal spec­trum avoid: Once we com­mit our­selves to raz­ing one form of injus­tice, all oth­ers con­nect­ed to it must begin to col­lapse. If we as a soci­ety are to ful­ly denounce slav­ery, we must, in fact, denounce this nation’s founders. Equi­ty can­not exist up to a point, but demands the total trans­for­ma­tion of our soci­ety, requir­ing the undo­ing of sys­tems — from cor­po­rate dom­i­na­tion of the pub­lic sec­tor to the prison and mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex­es — in which lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives are equal­ly invested.

Trump is a use­ful tar­get for lib­er­al spite because he presents him­self in exact­ly the way lib­er­als would have us believe a real racist does: He is igno­rant and unin­formed; he spouts epi­thets and bom­bas­tic vul­gar­i­ties; he seeks to incite vio­lence; he wears his big­otry as a badge of hon­or. When the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is por­trayed as the face of racism, sli­er racists are shield­ed from scruti­ny, and we reserve our rage mere­ly for those who use vul­gar lan­guage, rather than those who com­mit vul­gar acts.

When Jeff Ses­sions threat­ened in 2017 to cut fed­er­al fund­ing from sanc­tu­ary cities, May­or Emanuel promised to stand up to the bul­lies, defi­ant­ly main­tain­ing Chicago’s sanc­tu­ary sta­tus. Lib­er­als cel­e­brat­ed his speech, ignor­ing that the city has nev­er been a real haven for its undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents, nor for Black and Brown com­mu­ni­ties at large. It was immi­grant orga­niz­ers, not lib­er­als, who in the wake of Emanuels announce­ment demand­ed that, in order to make Chica­go a true sanc­tu­ary, the Chica­go Police Department’s gang data­base—which allows sus­pect­ed gang mem­bers to be deport­ed with­out being con­vict­ed of any crime — be dis­man­tled. It was immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties who insist­ed that only when Black peo­ple — immi­grant and non-immi­grant alike — do not fear being killed by police with impuni­ty, and can count on access to high-qual­i­ty pub­lic edu­ca­tion and afford­able hous­ing, can Chica­go call itself a sanc­tu­ary. It was immi­grants, not lib­er­als, who stood up to the bul­lies in their midst.

Trump com­mits the faux pas of express­ing his big­otry out­ward­ly, bust­ing through the deco­rum of polite racism that guides so much lib­er­al pol­i­cy. It is easy to vil­i­fy Trump. It is much hard­er, hav­ing estab­lished his beliefs as abhor­rent, to oppose them wher­ev­er they man­i­fest, includ­ing with­in sup­pos­ed­ly left-lean­ing com­mu­ni­ties and polit­i­cal parties.

So long as our actions are root­ed in a con­ve­nient hatred of Trump, rather than a com­mit­ment to dis­man­tling the larg­er struc­tures that enact racial vio­lence, the result will con­tin­ue to be exploita­tion and harm for the com­mu­ni­ties that lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives alike treat as shitholes.

Ben­ji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and edu­ca­tor cur­rent­ly liv­ing in Chica­go. They are the writer behind the blog Rad­i­cal Fag­got, and have essays fea­tured at Black Youth Project, Truthout, and oth­er fem­i­nist and abo­li­tion­ist media.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH