The Devastating Irony Of Trump’s ‘Shithole’ Comments

Protests against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Trump’s hatred comes from the same place that brought African countries here in the first place.

I t’s been a few days since Trump reportedly called African countries and Haiti “shitholes,” and already, the news cycle has played out predictably: vehement backlash to Trump’s statements, followed by vehement defending of what he said. Predictably, too, much nuance has been lost in the ensuing discourse.

I live in South Africa, and like many African citizens, I’m under no illusion about the existence of wealth gaps, poverty, public health issues, or corruption in the country. But rather than focusing on these issues, many well-meaning progressives have instead responded to Trump’s comments by posting beautiful pictures of African landscapes or talking about highly successful African immigrants — which, while worth highlighting, kind of misses the point.

As Sisonke Msimang noted:

significant parts of the countries these indignant ‘progressive’ people are posting about are, in fact, terrible places to live for poor people. Of course, there is joy and humour and grit and determination in even the poorest places — and there is no question that the word ‘shithole’ is dismissive and tacky — much like the man who uttered it.
However, it is important not to romanticise poverty and gloss over the truth in the interest of point-scoring. The poor people who have been left out of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative probably agree with the overarching sentiment behind Trump’s descriptions of their countries.”

White supremacy is a helluva drug, but the cure is not to dive in to another illusion. While it’s good and encouraging to celebrate African greatness, it’s also important not to lose sight of African countries’ historical oppression, and the white supremacy it’s directly linked to.

South Africa, for example, is not fine: My city could be the “first major city in the world to run out of water, and that could happen in the next four months”; our President is plagued by corruption scandals and a sexual assault allegation (to this, we South Africans can give a knowing nod to our American friends). Other African countries face their own issues, with Zimbabwe recently enduring a coup that got rid of one dictator and replaced him with a man who is not much better.

There are no perfect countries anywhere in the world, of course — but our issues are distinctly connected to the scars of European colonialism. This is why I don’t particularly care about Trump’s opinion of the countries themselves, but about how this opinion harmonizes with the dehumanization of an entire people — and how, ironically, this hatred comes from the same place that brought African countries here in the first place.

“Dehumanization” — that is, stripping away considerations of a person’s humanity — has a very clear aim. Morals and ethics are human constructs; when groups of people are no longer seen as human, these constructs can be bypassed, paving the way for acts against others which would normally be considered unconscionable. This is often a slow process, fueled by forms of propaganda, such as characterizing specific groups of people as insects or animals or equating them with undesirable characteristics, like violence, abuse, or poor health.

Some of the most well-known examples of this are also tied to particularly horrific acts: Nazis referred to Jewish people as rats during the Holocaust; Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches during the Rwandan genocide. During the 1943 Bengali Famine, Churchill intentionally diverted necessary food from starving Bengalis to better-nourished soldiers from Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece, by casting them as less human. “The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious [than that of the] sturdy Greek,” Churchill said. He also stated “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” and said the famine was the fault of Bengalis for “breeding like rabbits.” There are even references to this dehumanization process in ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Trump’s comments are a direct continuation of this line of thinking. His problem isn’t the “shithole” countries he demeans; it’s the people who populate them, who he sees as inferior and even inhuman.

Nazis referred to Jewish people as rats during the Holocaust; Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches during the Rwandan genocide.

It’s telling that Trump’s words were used in the context of wanting to curb immigration from the countries he called “shitholes” — as if he thought the citizens of these nations were responsible for their subpar living conditions, and would somehow in turn diminish conditions in the U.S. Disparaging entire nations is an underhanded way to group an entire people together, in order to say who they are is inherently bad. “Look what they’ve done to the lands they come from! Unlike us, who build great things!”

Trump’s words also don’t exist in a vacuum — we can’t separate them from past rhetoric and actions, which have been clearly rooted in disdain for black and brown people. Trump’s travel bans have targeted countries where people who look like me live; his response to the first black President was to speculate about Obama’s “real” place of birth, since it couldn’t possibly be the same as Trump’s; he is quick to call a kneeling black athlete a “son of a bitch” but to call Neo Nazis “very fine people.”

His absurd protestations be damned, Trump is blatantly a racist. And it’s precisely his brand of racism, coupled with power, that has been central to hampering African countries.

There is no clearer an example of this than apartheid. In South Africa, a history of colonialism was the foundation for devastating institutionalized segregation and discrimination. During apartheid, democracy was allowed for white people (mainly men) in the mid 20th century, but oppression was in full force for basically everyone else (especially black people). Despite being the minority, the white government was determined to keep other races under their thumb, and they did so by using language similar to Trump’s.

One of the many ways the government enforced oppression was through control of education. In 1953, the Bantu Education Act was introduced, and it reads precisely like any colonial law. Its primary goal: prevent and undermine the black population’s potential because that would put them on equal footing.

As SA History points out:

“The 1953 Act … separated the financing of education for Africans from general state spending and linked it to direct tax paid by Africans themselves, with the result that far less was spent on black children than on white children.”

Since black people obviously earned far less — when and if they were able to earn at all — they had far less to spend. This shows how the Act was created with surgical precision to undermine education for black kids. To justify this inequity, people who weren’t white were demeaned and dismissed by the white government.

Sound familiar?

At the time of the Act’s enforcement, Minister of Native Affairs Verwoerd said:

“There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

By now it should be clear what this Act demonstrated: Some people were not deserving of “our” resources, attention, and efforts. Today, this is exactly what underlies hateful comments about black and brown immigrants — even when such people can and do become contributing members of society.

There is no escaping the connection between the vile beliefs of apartheid and the mindset that prevents President Trump and other racists from drawing a moral circle around anyone with darker skin. In their minds, black and brown people are just not human in the same way white people are.

And so we end up with a terrible irony: The mentality of people like Trump is why the countries he now denigrates are suffering. But instead of this being acknowledged, we as citizens are being blamed and dehumanized, starting the whole vicious cycle over again.

Of course disparaging remarks about brown nations are racist — but they’re not racist because they’re a comment on economics or geography. They’re racist because they’re designed to denigrate we, the people, living in those nations.

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