Shall I jump right to the “shithole” comment? Last week, The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump, during a meeting at the White House, kicked back against a proposal to restore protections for people from Haiti and some African nations. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” the president allegedly said, suggesting that the United States should, instead, take in more people from countries like Norway. Trump reportedly continued: “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
Trump’s remark came only weeks after the administration decided to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that provides humanitarian assistance, for Salvadorans, and just months after it made a similar move against Haitians. The comment, unsurprisingly, sparked an uproar, with critics pointing to how Trump’s language signals a deeper issue. “It is a public admission of sorts that he is incapable of being a president for all Americans, the logic of his argument elevating not just white immigrants over brown ones, but white citizens over the people of color they share this country with,” the journalist Adam Serwer wrote for The Atlantic.
To gain additional perspective on Trump’s latest debacle, I spoke to Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University and a New America National Fellow. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Tell me a bit about your background broadly.
I’m a first-generation American. My parents immigrated from Haiti in the 1970s, and among my extended family, I think that about half of us were born in the United States, and the other half were born in Haiti and then immigrated as children.
Given your personal history, what was your immediate reaction to Trump’s remark?
I wasn’t surprised—because the president is a racist, and racists say things like that all the time. I was more concerned about the ways in which his racist ideology will impact future immigration policies, considering that the discontinuing of TPS for Haitians and Salvadorans has already been decided. I also think that there’s a second response, from me and from others, that often happens when the president is racist, publicly, and is caught: a feeling of humiliation. It’s not so much because I’m surprised that the president feels this way; it’s because when he’s at the center of a public conversation like this, it then opens up individuals who are harmed by the president’s rhetoric to be very vulnerable publicly. It externalizes something you know is happening, and then you find yourself engaging in conversations about your own humiliation. It’s a really difficult thing to have to do constantly, especially in this political climate.
Based on your own experiences and work, what does Trump’s remark reveal—or confirm, more likely—about America’s cultural and political views toward Haiti?
Haitians have always been a problem in the U.S. imagination. If we think about slave uprisings in Haiti in the 18th and 19th centuries, with full independence in 1804, those historical realities have created anti-Haiti sentiments in the United States, because the slaveholding class was terrified that a slave revolt would happen here. This tinged diplomatic relationships between Haiti and the United States. There was also the military occupation of Haiti, which led to even more strained, even more exploitative relationships between U.S. industrial powers and the island. And if we fast-forward to the ways in which the United States supported Haitian dictatorships, the ways in which global capital contributed to the deforestation of Haiti and to the exploitation of Haitian people in the tourism industry, we see a long history of the dynamics of colonialism being used when trying to relate to an independent nation.
For me growing up, the things that felt particularly real were the ways in which Haitian people were associated with the spread of AIDS in the ’80s. People who visited Haiti were restricted by the American Red Cross from donating blood for a very long time. People were concerned about what they called the three Hs: Haitians, homosexuals, and hemophiliacs. And so there was a way in which the AIDS crisis contributed to further marginalizing Haitian people. In the ’90s, after the coup that destabilized the government and led to the exile of the former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who at the time was a Catholic priest, the arrival of Haitian refugees on the coast of Florida made a critical mass of Americans again anti-Haitian.
Most recently, how the TPS issue has been treated—in terms of sending back almost 50,000 people with one decision, without thinking about the economic, political, and social implications of that decision—for people who are returning to a country that was devastated by an earthquake and didn’t have an opportunity to rebuild, you again see how this has been a long struggle for Haitians and Haitian-Americans to receive any type of justice in terms of U.S. policy.
The president basically consolidated, in one comment, how the United States has viewed Haiti for centuries. The problem is that he has the power to continue the types of policies that are consistent with how the United States has treated Haiti in the past.
So this is less a reveal, more a confirmation?
Absolutely. I think that anti-blackness in our immigration system has always been present, among both everyday people and policymakers. I think that the problem is that Haitian people, our advocacy is very limited numerically and geographically—we’re small in number, and we’re concentrated in probably three or four metropolitan areas. But like a lot of immigrant groups in the United States, our impact is outsized because of how we appear in the labor market, because of how we’ve been able to build community and provide not only for ourselves, but also for people back in Haiti. In this moment, I’ve noticed that people are trying to be allies and say, Well, I was an Irish immigrant, and my people were treated this way when they first came to the United States. But that sentiment really removes the anti-blackness at the heart of this, because groups like the Irish, Germans, and Italians, they were offered an opportunity to become white, and many of these groups were able to become white by consolidating their anti-blackness. The reality is, no matter how hard black immigrants fight to become American citizens and show their worth and show their value, anti-blackness limits their ability to gain equality in any kind of context, particularly with this administration.
Has there been anything, in particular, that’s infuriated you about people’s reactions to Trump’s comment?
What’s infuriated me is how there are many people who are stuck on the insult and stuck on the slur but who haven’t tried to understand the policy implications of Trump’s thinking. I’d rather be insulted than legislated out of an opportunity for the survival of my community. While I appreciate the people who’ve said that they’re offended by the president’s language, it seems like the vulgarity is more upsetting than the fact that this racist ideology is what’s shaping the future of this country—and what’s been instrumental in the building of this country.
On Twitter, you wrote: “History is key in political analysis. You can be disgusted by today’s insults and recognize that they are not new or inconsistent with the founding and growth of the nation.” Looking ahead, what would you like to see corrected in the discourse?
I want the discourse to be more informed by historical fact than by a sense of outrage and an appeal to decency. Because what I’ve seen is that we don’t have enough people looking at the long arc of history. Instead, a lot of people are reacting to a present moment. When people have a clear sense of history, they can make better decisions about how to act politically. What we need is more historically informed and grounded leadership, so that when the president makes comments like that, we see that this is part of a longer arc, and we see how this longer arc has harmed communities in the past. What’s disappointing about Trump isn’t that he’s outrageous; it’s that he’s consistent with what we’ve already seen unfold in this country.
Anything else you want to add?
My hope is that we’ll get to a point when people won’t rely on admiration or friendship—the idea of an immigrant who wins a Nobel prize or develops an app or goes to school with their kids—to make just policy. That they’ll act on the strength of their values.