'Rapists,' 'Huts': Trump's Racist Dog Whistles Aren't New

Jan 13, 2018

"Same insult, different day."

Essentially, that was the reaction of many people of color to news on Thursday that President Trump, in a bipartisan gathering to hammer out an immigration deal, had declared the U.S. shouldn't consider taking people from "these shithole countries." The sovereign entities that Trump allegedly reduced to outhouse status were Haiti, El Salvador and most of the African continent. (Trump has since taken to Twitter to deny the claims, saying he "Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country." But multiple people have dismissed that denial.)

In newsrooms across the country — including here at NPR — the reaction was "WHAT?!?" Then, "Can we really say/print that?" (Turns out we can.)

In general, though, the shock wore off pretty quickly. And on social media, many POCs just shook their heads. While some people lamented how far America had fallen with the use of such language, others were more sanguine: Why is anyone surprised at this latest utterance, considering the president's track record?

Before he was even elected, Trump raised the ire of many Latinos when he announced he wanted to build a wall to keep Mexicans from coming into the U.S. Most of the people here illegally, he said at a press conference, were "criminals and rapists." He wanted those "bad hombres" kept out. (As with other of his declarations, there was a little problem with the truth: People living here in the shadows are less likely to be criminals than the native-born.)

Then, months into his presidency, Trump was quoted saying he didn't want anyone else from Haiti coming to the U.S. because "they all have AIDS." Later, he apparently told some staff that there were too many Nigerians in the U.S., and future immigration policy should cut way, way back. If you let them in, he warned, they'll never "go back to their huts." (The White House has since denied this, but that denial got pushback from some people who were in the room.)

Black Americans didn't escape unscathed either. They should stop their blind allegiance to the Democrats and vote for him, Trump said at a 2016 campaign event, because, "What the hell do you have to lose?" The inner cities, he insisted, were full of crime and poverty — "they're just hell." (So ... hell? Shithole? Which is worse?)

Thursday's outhouse analogy may have given new life to some of Trump's old insults. Social media have blossomed with sardonically captioned photos of African cities like Lagos and Accra, with their highways and skyscrapers. ("My hut is in there somewhere...")

Later in the year, Charlottesville, Va., erupted, and we saw white nationalists streaming through the university town's streets, carrying torches and chanting about how they refused to be replaced by Jews or people of color. There would be no questioning their superiority as white people.

Counterprotests erupted; some became violent, and one woman was killed when a white fascist drove into an integrated crowd and mowed down several people.

Yet the nation waited two days for Trump's reaction or statement. And when it finally came, many were shocked. In a brief news conference, the president chided the media for its uneven coverage, even as leaders of his own party squirmed on the sidelines. "There are very fine people on both sides," Trump insisted, saying that antifa demonstrators bore some of the blame for the chaos too.

When Trump decided to insert himself into the NFL player protest later that fall, cries of racism became more plentiful. House Speaker Paul Ryan offered a tepid defense of his commander in chief: Trump is not racist, he said in an interview; "his heart is in the right place." The implication was that the president meant well, but sometimes he doesn't say things right.

That's one way of looking at it. The other way is this: He's saying exactly what he wants to say. As the Congressional Black Caucus pointed out, "Make America Great Again" really means Make America White Again.

One way to do that is to cut back on people from the aforementioned "shithole countries" — countries that, coincidentally, are full of black and brown people — to make room for immigrants from countries the president deems more desirable. He seems to like Norway. (Although as one Twitter user asked, why would most Scandinavians, who have higher education rates than their U.S. counterparts and a far more extensive social service system, want to trade that for what we have here?)

People from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are who Trump doesn't want. But he cannot turn back time. The country is getting browner, and America 2018 is never going to look like America 1918. Interracial marriages continue to increase; the bi- and multiracial population steadily grows. And the world has not stopped spinning.

So yes, calling most of Africa and the Western world's oldest independent black nation the institutional equivalent of a latrine is a new low in racial vulgarity for this president. But we probably haven't reached an absolute nadir yet.

Nevertheless, we should worry at the constant stream of racist, crude remarks this president unleashes on the public. Normalizing that kind of behavior leads to what sociologists call "otherization" — making the subject of one's remarks different from one's self to the point that it is easier to neglect, harm, even kill people one doesn't see as people. It happened in Germany in 1939. It happened in Rwanda in the '90s. It's happening now in Myanmar.

Donald Trump's relegation of whole nations filled with black and brown people to an undesirable inconvenience is another step down a slippery slope. If it's not called out and stopped, it could lead to something far worse than hurt feelings.

Which is why we should still take a moment to be shocked when the president of the United States says racist things. Even if you know his history.

Editor's note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language: It is "absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told."

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