Of Racism and Shitholes – This is not about structure

The recent racist comment on Haiti, El Salvador and African countries by President Trump and subsequent outcry offer many opportunities for a renewed action on this Martin Luther King Jr. day. The reference to African countries, El Salvador and Haiti as “shitholes” has been met with deserved condemnation. Yet, a handful of Africans have responded by pointing to poor conditions of living and corrupt leadership in some African countries as acceptable reasons for such racist moments by President Trump. I have always asked my students to worry less about the answer but more about the question. The racism inscribed in Trump’s comments is not about the physical structure of living spaces in Africa, El Salvador and Haiti. His racist comment is about the total devaluation of the identity of Africans, El Salvadorians and Haitians, regardless of where they live. What I have read and seen on this matter by those who accept Trump’s dehumanizing characterization of their country reinforce a key message I have for all Africans. The message which now has a renewed urgency is that, all Africans particularly those who live in the United States, MUST study African American history just as African Africans must study African history. We all need to learn from the rich history of institutional racism and have more conversations about the issue of racism directed at the black and brown identities globally and begin to create and nurture spaces to address racial assaults on our humanity.

Upon completing my doctorate at the University of Tennessee, my first employment was with the Tennessee health department in Nashville. I was responsible for visiting homes in areas around Lebanon, Tennessee to ensure that the homes were safety-proof to prevent infant and childhood accidents and injury. The homes that I inspected then in 1984 were and are not different from the homes that you would find in most of the Appalachian region today or and in parts of central Pennsylvania, where I visited while a professor at Penn State, or the area of Missouri called the Bootheel. The homes that I inspected as a part of my job in Tennessee were mostly (95%) occupied by white families. So are the homes to which I refer in Pennsylvania and Missouri. If conditions of the structures and spaces of living were a reason to define places as “shitholes”, there are several places in which white families live in the United States that would immediately be eligible but which, to these families, do not deserve to be so labelled. But then, of course, these are white families. Thus, the reference to shitholes by President Trump has nothing to do with the material conditions in which people live but about the total dehumanization and inferiorization of the identities of Africans, El Salvadorians and Haitians. The whites and non-whites who find themselves in deplorable living conditions could no longer be humiliated for the poor housing in which they must live, no more than Africans who live in these conditions. In both and all cases, kleptocracy, corruption and systemic policy of abandonment are to blame. That is a matter for another blog.

As we begin to recommit ourselves to the values of peace, human dignity and social justice that MLK lived and died for, we should commit ourselves to take some actions. Make your voice count. A friend reminded me of one of Audrey Lorde’s quotes that says “your silence will not protect you.” Beginning with this MLK day, all must read or reread MLK’s letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was directed at the clergy. Today, you are living in a global space, wherever you are, in which racism continues to reign and your actions matter in dismantling this pandemic. From the deriding reference to ‘huts’ in Nigeria to ‘shitholes’ in Africa, El Salvador and Haiti, you should at the very least, have a conversation with your friends and members of your family about racism. Professors, teachers, rabbis, imams, ministers, and priests should all weave this issue into their lessons to share with followers and community of learners.

Africans MUST commit to studying African American history if for nothing else but to stop conflating matters of race/identity with structure/conditions. African Americans must also study African history to have a fuller appreciation for why the experience with and learning more about Africa marked pivotal moments in the lives and legacies of MLK, Malcom X, W.E.B. DuBois, and others.

On the matter of which immigrant merits acceptance into the United States, you can also make your voice count. If you live in the United States and you have benefited from the knowledge and products produced by Haitians, Nigerians and other Africans, as a student, faculty, business leader, policy maker, product consumer, or in whatever capacity, then you must voice your rejection of any reference that suggests that immigration should be weighted in favor of certain European countries and not African countries. President Trump’s specific reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries was not exhaustive: it was meant as a representational reference to all parts of the world inhabited by black and brown people, who he believes should have no place, as citizens or immigrants, in his reimagined United States of America. We must all stand together and denounce racism. In the letter from Birmingham jail, MLK wrote “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

I wish you a day of activism and action and a day to reflect and celebrate a true genius – Martin Luther King, Jr.