The Way We Talk About Immigration Is Profane

The Way We Talk About Immigration Is Profane

The Way We Talk About Immigration Is Profane

Trump’s “shithole” remarks only scratch the surface.


I was in grade school when I first discovered how crazy white people can get about race, and how protective they can be of their privilege.

I had a new friend, a white kid I’d met at school. This was in the 1980s, but the Indianapolis district in which I lived was still coming to terms with integration, largely by busing black kids to white schools. Once we were inside the building, however, our classrooms remained starkly divided: white students in the “advanced” classes; black students, not. I had the kind of parents who made sure I was the odd black student in the wrong room, and that’s where I met this friend. I’ll call him Jack.

He was a smart, openhearted, upper-middle-class boy who was used to coming out on top. I suppose that’s why he got so flustered by whatever happened on the basketball court that day. I wasn’t there for the incident, but I gather that he’d lost and that he found it unfair. He was angry and complained to me about it—about those “niggers” who had cheated him of his glory.

Jack was shocked when I took offense. He assured me that I wasn’t a nigger, that of course he wasn’t talking about me. He’d meant those other guys, the bad hombres who he felt had taken something that rightfully belonged to him. They were the niggers. Didn’t I understand the distinction?

That conversation came bubbling up from my childhood memory over the past several weeks, as I watched the absurdist drama of Washington’s immigration debate unfold. I’ve been reminded of the lesson Jack taught me at 11 years old: White privilege requires an intense, collective delusion that the supremacy of white people in America is normal and fair. White people in particular must practice a difficult, daily self-deception, studiously ignoring the plain inequities that have shaped their lives. And when reality forces itself into this delusional fog, a great many simply can’t bear it: They scream “Fake news!” and turn away.

Which is why Donald Trump is making so much progress in his campaign to make America white again.

It’s fashionable among people of color to say Trump can’t shock us. I’m proud to say I find him shocking. I cannot become inured to either his extreme politics or his boorish, bullying behavior. I feel the daily creep of actual fascism, and it still terrifies me. That said, I couldn’t muster much shock at the recent “shithole” incident. The president routinely hurls around both vulgar and racist remarks; we know that. The truly troubling thing wasn’t the slur, but the reaction to it.

Days of breathless debate followed the White House meeting at which Trump cussed Haiti, El Salvador, and all of Africa. And with each passing day, the discussion became more narrowly focused on the language itself, parsing the president’s gutter vocabulary. Did he really say “shithole”? Senators Jeff Flake and Tim Scott said that they had spoken with people in the room who had clearly heard him use the word. Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue insisted otherwise. And anyway, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen noted, everybody at the meeting was throwing around “tough language”—kind of like locker-room talk, but for the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, the utter profanity of everything about the meeting itself faded into the fog of white privilege.

Let’s start with the fact that a cabal of white men were sitting around negotiating the lives of millions of black and brown people. Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a right-wing scion of the Cuban elite, was the only person in that room who might identify as a person of color. This fact seems like a mundane reality of American government, but that doesn’t make it any less profane.

Every word spoken in that meeting was a slur against racial justice.

But if we are to parse the actual words these white men used, let’s start with “chain migration” and its evocation of a spreading virus. Xenophobes have long worked to mainstream this slur as a replacement for the legally and ethically appropriate term, “family reunification,” for the long-standing system that allows citizens, green-card holders, and refugees to sponsor family members for visa applications. The White House has been using the phrase “chain migration” a lot. It’s meant to help white America make the same distinction that my friend Jack tried to impress upon me in grade school. Trump’s OK with the Dreamers; they’re not niggers. But those others, their parents, grandparents, cousins—they’re bad hombres creeping in from their shithole countries to take our stuff.

It’s not a new idea to divide humans who migrate into acceptable and unacceptable people—both Democrats and Republicans have been doing so for decades. As president, Barack Obama claimed to focus his deportation efforts on hardened criminals, while in reality breaking up thousands of families over decade-old marijuana and DUI arrests. Trump has taken this idea to its extreme, as he does with many things, and opened up a once unimaginable debate over aspects of legal immigration like family reunification.

For two decades, Republicans and Democrats have been trying to strike a deal that trades more border security for a path to citizenship for people in the United States without papers. Trump has set that effort back profoundly: Now, we must also debate the rules written specifically to remove white supremacy from immigration policy.

This debate points to the most profane thing about that White House meeting: the sacred borders that protect Americans from undesirables were drawn by white men, at gunpoint, over indigenous and colored bodies. The fog of white privilege allows us to now drape those borders with moral authority and legal sanctity, but they are the product of violent racism. And now a group of white men are debating which black mothers are worthy enough to cross them in order to hug their daughters, and which brown sons must be sent back to die.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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