Cartoon by Nate Beeler

Tracing the Racist Roots of Donald Trump’s Obscenities

The New Yorker: Trump reportedly grouped Africans under the scatological banner while lamenting the dearth of Norwegians arriving in the United States. His exasperation with African immigration is particularly jarring, given the high educational achievements of many people coming from that continent. Trump is reported to have said last year that once Nigerians see the United States, they will never “go back to their huts.” Yet Nigerians in this country hold master’s degrees at more than double the rate of white Americans, and doctorates at four times the rate. The Administration has consistently denounced immigration that was not based on “merit,” but, two years ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that one of the biggest problems that African immigrants faced in the United States was finding employment commensurate with their levels of educational achievement.

Among the more curious footnotes to Trump’s Presidency is the provenance of his nativism. He is, as David Klion wrote, a product of Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse urban area in the United States. (Some experts estimate that as many as eight hundred languages are spoken there.) Trump grew up in Jamaica Estates; I grew up in South Jamaica. There is precisely the same relationship between those two communities that their names would suggest. Trump’s environs were, both literally and socioeconomically, elevated above the surrounding areas. The Queens in which he spent his youth served as a sort of interior suburb of New York City and was, not coincidentally, the second-whitest of the five boroughs, after Staten Island. Such were the racial politics of Queens in that era that, as the historian Martha Biondi points out in “To Stand and Fight,” a history of the civil-rights movement in New York, LaGuardia airport, in northern Queens, enacted a demure form of segregation of black travellers in the fifties. There were no “Colored Only” signs, just tacitly recognized black and white areas in the airport.

The tide of change in the borough came as a product of the Hart-Celler Act, of 1965, which radically changed the composition of American immigration. Beginning in the late sixties, Queens became the destination for successive waves of Brazilian, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Tunisian, Yemeni, Dominican, Indian, and Pakistani immigrants. (White resentment of this shift was embodied in the character of Archie Bunker, in Norman Lear’s “All in the Family.”) Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric around immigration during the campaign was merely the opening front of a much larger offensive against any form of immigration that might result in more of the United States coming to resemble Queens. He obliterated a field of sixteen Republican candidates for President last year, in part, because, while they struggled with the language of white ethnic resentment, he spoke it fluently.

The burgeoning hostility toward immigrants in New York in those years landed with particular weight on Haitians—who, Trump is reported to have said last year, “all have AIDS.” Amid the paranoia of the early AIDS crisis, Haitians were stigmatized as vectors for the disease, and the federal government banned them from donating blood. The fear that a new group will spread disease is a common narrative in the history of American immigration. In this instance, it was conjoined to an irony, in that a good deal of the flight from Haiti during those years was inspired by the brutality of the Duvalier regimes, both of which were supported by the United States.

Both history and irony are lost on the current occupant of the White House. It is nonetheless worth recalling that Haiti was the second colony in the Western Hemisphere to declare independence from Europe. Whereas the Americans rebelled against the comparative abstractions of tax policy and economic interests, Haitians confronted a power that had quite literally enslaved, raped, and murdered them. The disastrous impact of that war on the French economy factored into Napoleon’s decision to sell to Thomas Jefferson the Louisiana Territory, for the fire-sale price of fifteen million dollars. (Fifteen American states were carved in part or in their entirety from that purchase.) The success of the Haitian Revolution, in turn, inspired the United States to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade, fearful that there was now a template for successful mass slave revolts. The histories of the United States and Haiti are intricately interwoven >>>