The fact Donald Trump apparently used the word “shithole” to describe the countries of Haiti, El Salvador and Africa is not surprising given his core racist beliefs, and the use of the vulgarity itself doesn’t really coarsen a political discourse he has already obliterated in just over a year in office.
By now, the entire world knows that Trump used the word or maybe “shithouse,” according to witnesses, and, just as importantly, other demeaning words to denigrate those countries during a meeting to discuss U.S. immigration matters. The point upon which there was universal agreement on all sides is that Trump doesn’t want people from those specific countries to immigrate here.
Unfortunately, the media has spent too much breathless energy focusing on the specific vulgarity, obscuring Trump’s and his surrogates’ lack or apathy of historical awareness when it comes to exploited, Western colonized countries, such as Haiti.
The West, dating back to the what is known as the Age of Discovery beginning in the late fifteenth century, then the long brutal period of colonization over four centuries and now the disguised forms of exploitation in the post-colonial era, has created the structural, poverty-related problems faced by countries like Haiti, the country in which I will focus on in this post. That’s the issue that needs addressing in the context of Trump’s rather routine hateful comments, at least for him. Trump’s skewed and diminished intellect, in fact, actually opens up a space for reconciliation.
Yet there’s the ugly caveat. Trump and people who think like him don’t come from a moral center that accepts that slavery was inherently evil and don’t believe it still remains a powerful psychological and philosophical legacy that finds expression in multiple and sinister ways. To use an obvious example of this legacy, how does one qualify the continued adulation over the slave-owning forefathers of our own country in our present age? Don’t we at the very least qualify slavery or diminish its brutality when we glorify George Washington, the country’s first president? Washington owned 317 slaves at his death, and that’s all the evidence we need to know he was immoral, repugnant and inhumane as well as intellectually and psychologically flawed in a serious manner. Trump and people like him will never accept the continued lack of reconciliation over these basic arguments about our history, which have increasingly become recognized as the historical reality that subverts the reductionist founding myths repeatedly exposed as lies and fantasies.
Trump’s latest display of racism, obviously meant to shore up his base once again, gives true learners then an opportunity to dig deeper, and Haiti is both a fascinating and telling country to use as an example of the historical and present victims of white supremacists.
Christopher Columbus sailed to what become known as the Hispaniola island in 1492 and “claimed” it for Spain, a starting point for Western colonization. At the time the island was inhabited by indigenous people. The western portion of the island and what become known as Haiti was ceded to France in the early seventeenth century. The other half of the island was colonized by the Spanish and became the Dominican Republic. The French brought slaves to the island to cultivate sugarcane crops and to provide sugar to Europe. The slaves were essentially treated brutally so Europeans could appease their cravings for sweet food.
But here’s what everyone needs to know about Haiti. The slaves, upwards of a staggering 700,000 in number, revolted in 1791 during the time period of the French Revolution, won the military battles against their despicable oppressors and formed Haiti as its own republic in 1804. It was the only successful slave revolt leading to the formation of a country in history, and it makes Haiti unique and important. It’s also important to note that U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner and racist himself, refused to recognize the country as an independent republic while in office, fearful undoubtedly that slaves brought to the U.S. might revolt as well.
Meanwhile, the French weren’t done with Haiti and actually made the country pay it restitution for losses its plantation owners supposedly incurred during the revolt. Let the immorality of that sink in. In order to gain recognition as a sovereign country, the Haitian paid the contemporary equivalent of $21 billion to their former slaveholders in the nineteenth century and were still paying out until 1947. It’s the epitome of Western exploitation, the ur-example of exploitation and it was based on the exact type of racism espoused by the current U.S. president.
Haiti’s historical dealings with the U.S. have been just as bad. The U.S. began a 20-year occupation of the country starting with a U.S. Marines invasion in 1915 to protect American business interests, installing a puppet government and essentially shaping the country’s government and socio-economic systems until the 1980s. The earlier occupation resulted in infrastructure improvements but only by the threat of death for many of its residents, who were summoned to work by U.S. authorities and then either arrested/killed for refusing to do so or dying of maltreatment or disease as workers. It was just another form of slavery. The American government also supported the corrupt Duvalier regime, providing it money and weapons in the twentieth century. The Duvalier dynasty stole the country’s treasure and again put the country in severe debt, all with American backing.
The late imminent post-colonial scholar Edward Said once wrote, “Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” This was, of course, the excuse—in one form or another—used by U.S., France, Spain and other countries to exploit people through history for their own financial gain or global influence. But the root of all the exploitation is based on the demonstrably false and immoral ideas embedded in white supremacy.
We’ll never know, for example, how African countries and places like Haiti might have developed if they had never encountered Western exploitation, greed and violence.
The larger story, then, about struggling countries inhabited primarily by people of color—the shithole countries in Trump’s words—is how white supremacy historically and currently create the very dysfunction—poverty, most notably—some white people cite as a type of proof of their sordid belief system. Let’s put it in stark terms: White people make the mess, create the dire conditions and then blame and ridicule the black and brown people they oppress. The white people depict “the other” as lazy, ignorant, oversexed and devious when all these human characteristics are far more applicable to themselves.
Trump is a white supremacist, who openly appeals to other white supremacists as we’ve seen through his comments about “both sides” at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, by berating black NFL players for kneeling down during the National Anthem as they try to make people aware of racial injustice, by claiming all Haitian immigrants “have AIDS” and that people of Nigeria all “live in huts.” The national Republican Party’s main political strategy since President Richard Nixon has been based on creating and stoking white resentment of “the other.” Trump’s latest comments are an extreme version and escalation of that racist pattern, and we should expect more racist remarks and actions from him in the future.
It’s not the vulgarities that matter all that much. It’s the historical legacy and present incarnation of white supremacy that matters, and the mainstream media is falling us by not using the blunt language the current moment demands and by getting wrapped up in the idiocy of whether to print or say a word used by our country’s racist president.
Trump uses crass language, and it needs to be quoted by the media as he uses it, not watered down with asterisks. Trump is a white supremacist and that fact should no longer be subject to debate in news columns.