I am part of the Haitian diaspora—here’s why I wasn’t surprised by Trump’s comments

Haitians perform a vaudou ceremony before the start of a memorial service honoring the victims of the 2010 earthquake, at Titanyen, a mass burial site north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and surrounding areas that killed almost 300,000 people and was the greatest natural catastrophe in the country’s history. Eight years later, many Haitians are still struggling to survive, many without homes and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yesterday President Trump added to the pain of this year’s anniversary with degrading references to Haiti and Haitian immigrants. Although he has now denied it, the comments leave a sting for those of us from the nation.

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President Trump added to the pain of this year’s anniversary with degrading references to Haiti and Haitian immigrants.

Every year, Haitians remember where they were when they first heard the rumbling sound of goudougoudou, how long they were trapped, what they did next and where they slept that night. Every year, people in the diaspora remember the loved ones they lost, lament all that the disaster left in its wake (including the deaths of thousands as a result of a cholera epidemic that the United Nations eventually admitted being responsible for) and wonder what full recovery and reconstruction will look like. Every year on Jan. 12, we remember, we honor the dead, we grieve and we hope for a different future.

Mr. Trump’s comments have rightfully inspired outrage and should be condemned unequivocally. But, for three reasons, they are not shocking.

First, because they are evidence of a brand of racism that has always been present in U.S. society, which since the 2016 campaign has been fanned into virulent flame. Many of us have long understood that the mission to “Make America Great Again” has anti-black racism at its root—white could easily replace black. The project of white supremacists is to reclaim the country from anyone who does not fit the mold of whiteness and maleness.

Trump’s comments have rightfully inspired outrage. But, for three reasons, they are not shocking.

Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world, has long been the target of racism. In many ways, anti-Haitian sentiment can be equated with anti-blackness. In Silencing the Past: History and the Production of Power, Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains that the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable precisely because no one imagined that enslaved people would (and could) rebel against their white slave owners and claim their freedom.

The anthropologist Gina Ulysse explains it this way: “There is, of course here a subtext about race. Haiti and Haitians remain a manifestation of blackness in its worst form because the enfant terrible of the Americans defied all European odds and created a disorder of things colonial” (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives).

Second, Mr. Trump’s comments are not shocking because stereotypes about Haitians are unfortunately very familiar to many of us. Last month the president allegedly trotted out an old AIDS stereotype from the 1980s in his references to Haitian immigrants. In the 1980s, the Red Cross went so far as to put a ban on Haitians donating blood because of these prejudices. At the time Haitians organized protests just as they did earlier this year when the Temporary Protected Status for Haitians was revoked for more than 50,000 Haitians.

Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world, has long been the target of racism.

Third, Mr. Trump’s remarks are unsurprising because of the interwoven history shared by Haiti and the United States. Haiti won its independence from France almost 30 years after the United States became independent. But Haiti’s northern neighbor did not recognize its independence until 1862. Later, in 1915, the United States invaded and occupied Haiti for almost 30 years to “protect American interests.” Another intervention followed by occupation took place in the 1990s after a coup d’état ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The two countries have such strong ties that you cannot tell the history of one without the other.

Last semester I taught a class entitled “Haiti chérie: Haitian Literature and Film.” In it, we read novels by Haitian authors like Evelyne Trouillot and Kettly Mars, watched films about Haiti by filmmakers like Raoul Peck and listened to Haitian music. My goal was always to show students that, as historian Marc Prou says, “Haiti is economically poor but culturally rich.”

At one point, my father came to visit the class during a visit from Haiti. A Haitian immigrant to the United States who lived here for over 30 years before returning to his country of origin, my father is a trained physician who practiced medicine before retiring. He and my mother exemplify the “good immigrant” model. They worked tirelessly, owned multiple properties, sent all of their children to private school and college and then chose to return home for their retirement.

People should not matter because of what they contribute to the U.S. economy.

Certainly, when people speak disparagingly about immigrants they are not referring to people like my parents. But this kind of thinking is inherently flawed. People should not matter because of what they contribute to the U.S. economy; they matter simply because they are people.

My father was delighted by the class. As a proud father he loved to see me in action, as a devoted Catholic he was thrilled to be on Boston College’s campus and as a physician who teaches at the state medical school in Port-au-Prince, he enjoyed interacting with the students. But what left the greatest impression on him was seeing how much my students knew about Haiti and how excited they were about the material. He was moved by seeing students from so many different backgrounds—many of whom knew very little about Haiti prior to my class—take so much interest in his country. To him, the students were an example of the power of education, what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has cited as the power of stories to influence how people think about a place.

Despite what we know about the president’s proclivity for making racist remarks about specific groups, his comments are still demoralizing. This morning I had to tell my third- and fourth- grade sons about what their president said. Thankfully, with grandparents from Haiti and Ghana, they are aware of their rich cultural heritage and have traveled to both countries.

Yes, I am demoralized, but I am not discouraged: I know that Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world, has a legendary history. It is the home of artists, writers, dancers, photographers, filmmakers, intellectuals and so many people—both extraordinary and ordinary—who use their work and their lives to bring beauty and hope into the world.

Today is a day of sadness for us, but tomorrow will be a day for action, when we take these feelings and use them to fuel our resistance, just as our ancestors did. Or, as the author Edwidge Danticat puts it, “Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we fight.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike McDermott
9 months 1 week ago

Haiti has a long history of government cronyism and corruption. Since independence it can fairly be described as a failed state, with leaders who abused their own people and kept Haiti in an impoverished and under developed condition. The United States and other countries have donated billions of dollars for poverty relief, but without a government willing to allow foreign businesses to set up shop and create jobs the poverty continues.

To state this fact is not racist.

However, to claim that any criticism of Haiti, or Cuba, or Venezuela, or Somalia is racist because a white person happens to say it Is simply race baiting.

Trump may be boorish, impolite, and even crude at times, but your claims of racism (a serious sin) are based on nothing he has said. Could it be your own personal bias and presumptions which make you “read between the lines” and jump to conclusions about what is in his heart?

Let us continue to pray for the good people in Haiti and other third world countries who are suffering under corrupt socialist or crony capitalist governments, and let us pray our President and other leaders do what they can to help those in need and encourage reform.

Let us also pray for an end to both racism and false accusations of racism.

Lisa Weber
9 months 1 week ago

Trump is boorish, impolite and crude most of the time. He is also racist. To defend what is clearly racism, especially in the president, is unacceptable. His comments about Haiti, African countries, Mexico and Mexicans - what about his comments would make any reasonable person think he is not racist? No, we cannot see what is in his heart, but we can hear what he says and he makes vulgar, racist comments. I am ashamed that someone so horrid occupies the White House and represents us to the world.

rose-ellen caminer
9 months 1 week ago

His Muslim/ refugee ban gets no mention. Your omission is glaring here. Racism is expressed is what is not said as conspicuously as in what Trump says.
Americans have been calling nations s-hole since at least Viet Nam. Its how hateful right wing Americans talk about third world countries from time to time. He applied it to groups, nations that it is not PC to do, hence the fire storm. Had he talked like Hannity, Coulter, O'Reilly , Limbaugh, Fox inc, even Obama it is now revealed, and only labeled war torn Muslims countries as such, no fire storm would have resulted. As your own omission exemplifies. Your silence about his anti Muslim/Refugee bigotry, is complicity.

Looking Forward
9 months 1 week ago

Mike, you don't seem to understand how racism is expressed beyond the dinner table. Trump is a veritable master of wink wink racism, which enables him, and you, to claim that "nothing" he has said is racist. I come from a family some of whom are pretty well practiced in wink wink. Here's how it works. You never mention anyone's color; the visual will do nicely. Kneeling NFL players, suffering Haitians (black) are always subject to criticism but never identified audibly by color. Protesting Nazis and KKKers (all white) are called "very fine people" but never identified as either white or Nazis, just a group on one of "both sides."

Haiti, unnamed countries in Africa (they're all the same, right?), throw in a bunch of Latinos, and, presto, you got yourself a plethora of sh...hole countries. In case the wink wink needs reinforcing, add a question, "why aren't we importing more people from Norway?" and the meaning could not be clearer.

Except, perhaps, to you.

Mike McDermott
9 months 1 week ago

None of your observations of Trump remarks spell out racism individually or collectively. He said nothing racist, yet you conclude he is racist. Perhaps you have made up your mind about Trump based on your own prejudices or world view and are projecting?

Perhaps we disagree fundamentally on what a racist is? My definition is someone who by words or actions deliberately defames or harms an individual or group specifically due to their race.

Douglas Fang
9 months 1 week ago

This is something I’ve been saying all along about this POTUS Trump. He is a racist. Period. It is despicable and coward for those so-called Christian/Catholic conservatives who are still supporting Trump. I wonder what deep down in their heart or mind they are thinking when they come to God in their prayer… Are they praying to God or just to a fake and distorted God constructed in their own mind?

Toby Gillis
9 months 1 week ago

No practicing catholic has any standing talking about someone elses " fake and distorted God" which is constructed in the mind of pagan Romans

Blaise Pascal
9 months 1 week ago

So while the choice of words is regrettable, the issue is not whether the author and her dad are nice people. It is whether it is in the best interests of the United States to admit more immigrants who are poor, uneducated, suffer from higher rates of HIV (notwithstanding the author's dismissive hand-waving and calling the Red Cross racist) and have a poor track record of contributing to the U.S. economy than immigrants who are likely to contribute more. From a national interest standpoint, the answer is clearly no. From a humanitarian standpoint maybe yes, but there needs to be a balance, and I for one am glad we have a leader who is willing to raise these difficult topics, even if boorishly.

As to the suggestion that a person's worth is not tied up in their economic contribution, that is a correct statement of Catholic theology. But it has nothing to do--and is incorrect--as a statement of rational national immigration policy.

Colin Donovan
9 months 1 week ago

Whatever the truth of Trump’s remarks, and they seem plausibly true, the thesis about white male America is ridiculous, a reflection of the Left’s own preoccupation with identity and victimhood politics. Are there crazy white supremecist looneys on Trump’s side of the political divide? Are they crazy socialists on the opposite side ready to burn Rome down in order to rebuilt it? The answer to both questions is yes. But it is presumeably not the majority of either camp. This article would have us believe the immigration issue is reducible to racism.

rose-ellen caminer
9 months 1 week ago

To me its sad how people vilified by ignorant Americans like Trump, but not limited to Trump [for right wing Americans have always called nations and peoples they don't like or know names, and implemented adverse policies against them. He got elected for doing just that] feel they have to justify their existence to these ignoramuses. By going all over the media telling Americans how really they are good people, how they fought for their side during the revolution, how they are educated and hard working, is like they are begging the hateful bully who is showing nothing but contempt for them, to be liked. All this groveling at the foot of the arrogant Americans to get them to like you, is sad. Like they have bought into the right- wing - xenophobic- American stance that a people , a nation are only exempt from being vilified in words and in discriminatory policies, if they as a people and as a nation are a virtual satellite of the US, and so they go about saying all the right things to justify their existence before such powerful but ignorant xenophobes.

Stuart Meisenzahl
9 months 1 week ago

The Author is quite correct that Haiti has a legendary history but neglects to point out that such history includes the fact that it has been a consistent failed state. The boat people of Haiti were fleeing the island nation long before the horrific earthquake. The great earthquake simply magnified an already near hopeless political and economic situation.

As a purely American political matter it is interesting to note that the American invasions of Haiti mentioned by the author were both launched by Progressive Democratic Presidents--Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton....both with devastating impact.

The comment on immigration above by Blaise Pascal is pointed and correct: the author's position 'People matter because they are people and not because of what they can contribute' is an accurate reflection of Catholic Theology but has nothing to with a rational immigration policy. To which I add......unless of course you simply determine that you will admit everyone who wishes to immigrate to the U.S.

J Cosgrove
9 months 1 week ago

Be brief, be charitable, and stay on topic. See our comments policy for more.

I have a question for the editors, authors and commenters of America, the magazine. When one calls another a racist, is that charitable?

Chuck Kotlarz
9 months ago

Major U.S. cities with a high percentage foreign born population lead the country economically. A strong, successful middle class (including immigrant Haitians), however, threatens the aristocracy. The aristocracy cannot preserve and expand its wealth without a weak middle class. The aristocracy's divide and conquer tactics weaken the middle class and the republic.

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