President Trump made a “go back to your country” tweet recently and arguments have broken out between the left and the right about whether or not it was racist. Several strange defenses have been made of his tweet. Let’s walk through some of them and see what we can all learn about ourselves and our attitudes toward race.
First, let’s look at exactly what the President said:
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.
Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”
Based on the timing and the context, many people have concluded that this tweet is about “The Squad,” four non-white freshmen Democratic congresswomen who have been working closely together to shake up establishment politics in Washington. Pictures above from left to right, they are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) (NY, 14th), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI, 13th), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA, 7th), and Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN, 5th).
Many people have pointed out how ludicrous this is since representatives AOC, Tlaib, and Pressley were all born in the U.S. and only Omar was born in another country. It has been pointed out that President Trump must be assuming that all of these women have foreign ties and roots because they are all women of color.
Now, one of the strangest defenses I have heard is that President Trump was only referring to one person in particular, and not all four of these women. His use of plurals is dismissed as being a generalization about anyone who fits the description, but only one person was on the President’s mind when he came up with that description.
Of course, that person is Rep. Omar, a U.S. citizen who was born in Somalia and immigrated to the U.S. when she was twelve. Even if President Trump was only referring to Rep. Omar, that doesn’t make him any less of a racist to tell her to “go back to their [her] country.”
I might be willing to buy the argument that he was using using the colloquial sarcasm trick of speaking in the plural but having one specific person in mind, except that he ended his tweed by saying, “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” If he had any one person in mind, then that would mean he was clearly Rep. AOC since it is her ongoing power struggle with Speaker Pelosi that President Trump has been trying to inject himself into and highlight in order to foment division within the Democratic Party.
Some have pointed out that Rep. AOC was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican heritage so President Trump couldn’t possibly mean her since she is clearly from the U.S. The problem is that President Trump has demonstrated a history of being confused about world geography, so it would be no surprise if he makes no distinction between different Latin American countries. To many Americans, Latinos are all the same and since Rep. AOC is latina it wouldn’t be a stretch that he assumes she is foreign. He also has proven to be somewhat ignorant about Puerto Rico in particular, repeatedly referring to it as if it is a separate country from the U.S. so it wouldn’t surprise me if he knows Rep. AOC’s heritage but that doesn’t matter to him.
However, even if you assume that he was only referring to Rep. Omar, that would still make it the most disturbing feature of his tweet. To tell a Somali woman to “go back to their [her] country” is kind of like telling her you wish her to live a tortured life and to die young. And especially in the context of telling her to “help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they [she] came,” only reveals a callous ignorance about the human rights conditions for women in the country to which he is referring.
In 2005, UNICEF ranked Somalia the number one country for female genital mutilation because 97.9% of all women and girls there have undergone the procedure. In 2011 Somalia was ranked the fifth worst place in the world to live as a woman due to domestic violence, rape, FMG, infanticide, acid attacks, limited access to healthcare and education, high maternal mortality rates, and economic discrimination.
While it is true that one third of Somalia’s parliament is comprised of 30% women, this is merely to meet a token gender quota to give the appearance of women having political power when the reality is that they have little to no political power according to a 2017 study published by Social Development Direcct and Forcier Consulting. Somalia’s own women’s minister, Maryan Qasim, said of the country’s 2011 ranking, “I thought Somalia would be first on the list, not fifth.”
And speaking of Tokenism, President Trump seems to be a perfect case study in this practice. He has added token people of color into his administration to give the appearance that he is not racist, but it is all to obvious that this is his motive for doing so because he cannot help himself referring to their race every chance he gets, as if he is desperate to remind us. Thou doth protest too much.
In reality, President Trump’s cabinet is dominated by white men: 11 out of 15 plus four token members: Ben Carson, Alex Acosta, Elaine Chao, and Betsy DeVos. Even their positions reveal some not-so-subtle racism and misogyny: Putting the only black man in charge of Housing and Urban Development, and one of the only women in charge of the Department of Education (both of whom had no qualifications for either job prior to their nomination).
If there was any doubt that the women and people of color in President Trump’s cabinet are only there for the token defense against racism, you need look no further than Vice President Pence’s own chief of staff, Marc Short, who pointed out this weekend that President Trump couldn’t possibly be racist because he appointed Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan, to his cabinet. This sounds an awful lot like the tired old ‘black friend’ defense.
What Mr. Short is failing to realize is that you don’t have to be racist against ALL races to be a racist. In fact, approval of Asian Americans, America’s non-threatening “model minority,” is quite common among even the most virulent of racists who think other people of color are less-than human and often used as a wedge between Asians and blacks.
Why is the token defense so hideous? Because it is not only makes no logical sense, but it is also a common pre-planned defense by racists to justify their planned racist behavior in the same way that someone planning a major crime will try to set up an alabi for themselves ahead of time. And yes, the token defense makes as much logical sense as it would if Ted Bundy defended himself by saying, “I couldn’t possibly be a murderer, just look at all the friends I have who are alive!”
The bottom line is this: None of the defenses of President Trump’s tweet actually hold any water – in fact, they only serve to further pile on additional evidence of his bigotry, misogyny, ignorance, and callousness. If you heard any of these defenses and thought, “Oh, okay that makes sense. That clears him,” then you should take a serious look into your own biases and cultural influences. The thing about being in a moving car is it often feels like you are standing still and it is the rest of the world that is moving.
The thing about being a racist is that it is so normal and acceptable to you that you don’t even realize that you are. If an overwhelming number of people are pointing to an action or attitude and saying, “Hey, that’s totally racist!” the correct response is not to immediately assume they are all over-sensitive snowflakes looking for something to be mad about. The correct response is to assume that maybe there is something you are missing and it is worth investigating yourself and questioning your own beliefs and assumptions first rather than writing off your critics and surrounding yourself with other people who agree with you (they are probably just as racist are you are).
Racism isn’t an on or off switch. Racism is a spectrum. When someone’s defense of their racist action or attitude is to simply distinguish themselves from a worse action or attitude or to compare themselves to the worse racist they can think of, that is pretty good evidence that they actually are truly a racist and not simply misunderstood.
The lyrics to the Avenue Q song, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” are more than just a couple of clever jokes They speak to a truism that we all need to start embracing and learning from. The song not only points out that we can all stand to make improvements, it demonstrates degrees of racism, and destigmatizes it as a common human foible so that avoiding self-loathing won’t be a roadblock to truly being honest with ourselves about our racist attitudes.
We all need to constantly be examining our biases and beliefs, myself included, and listening closely to people who are critical of us and our politicians, because that is the only way we are ever going to catch our blind spots. I learn more about myself, my blind spots, biases, and inappropriate beliefs and actions every day, and the work is far from over. It is a humbling, but extremely necessary habit to form if we truly want to make this world a better place.