15 January 2018

Africa: Prof Zeleza On Trump's 'Shithole' Africa - the Homogenization and Dehumanization of a Continent

Photo: African Union Mission to the USA
African Union Mission to the USA reacts to President Trump's 'shithole countries' remarks.
opinion

This week Haiti and Africa became the butt of President Trump's pathologically racist and profusely obscene verbal assaults. During a White House meeting with Congressional leaders on immigration he dismissed Haiti and the entire continent as undesirable "shithole" countries. The comments provoked a firestorm of global condemnation from the United Nations to the African Union. Several African countries, such as Botswana and Senegal, summoned US ambassadors to issue official diplomatic protests. Social media exploded with incredulity, outrage, and bitterly satirical hashtags celebrating the beauty and humanity of the disparaged peoples and their lands.

Within the United States itself, reaction to President Trump's racist, xenophobic, and undiplomatic diatribe was filtered through the poisonous partisan divide that has eroded civil discourse and made American politics so dysfunctional. Democrats including members of the Congressional Black Caucus denounced the President's vulgar and vile remarks unequivocally and pushed for a censure resolution, while defensive Republicans kept silent or prevaricated, except for a handful of Black Republicans such as Mia Love, the first Haitian American elected to Congress, and Tim Scott, the lone African American Republican in the Senate. Representative Love rebuked the President and demanded an apology, and Senator Scott expressed deep disappointment.

The predictable political script of outrage and support for the President's divisive comments was replicated in the media. Outraged liberal pundits excoriated the President for his racism, but his rightwing cheerleaders heartily defended him for his realism. Elsewhere, among African and Haitian immigrants, and across the continent itself, many were shocked but not surprised. So was I.

The reasons for my lack of surprise were outlined at length in two essays, one written in March 2016, seven months before the US election, entitled "Republicans, Racists, and the Obama Derangement Syndrome," and the other, "The Tragedy and Farce That Is Trump's America," written a day after the November elections (both available on my Linkedin site). Trump's obnoxious, moronic, and dangerous racist buffoonery appeals to and embodies the Republican Party's underbelly of white supremacy and neo-fascist obsession to make "America White Again."

Trump's derogatory dismissal of shithole Haiti and Africa reflects enduring tendencies in the American social imaginary about Africa and its Diasporas. This is to suggest, as outraged as we might be about Trump's provocative and pusillanimous pronouncements, the Trump phenomenon transcends Trump. The specter of racism, whose pernicious and persistent potency Trump has brazenly exposed to the world, has haunted America from its inception with the original sin of slavery, through a century of Jim Crow segregation, and the past half century of post-civil rights redress and backlash.

The disdain expressed for Haiti and Africa in the President's latest vicious verbal assault is a projection of an angry racist project to rollback the limited gains of the civil rights struggle and settlement of the 1960s that has animated the Republican Party's Southern Strategy and politics ever since. In short, international relations and perceptions of foreign nations are often driven as much by geopolitical interests and developments as they are by prevailing domestic politics. For multicultural societies the shifting dynamics of inter-ethnic and inter-racial relations should not be underestimated. The intersection of domestic and foreign affairs tend to reflect, reproduce, and reinforce national and global racial hierarchies.

Ever since millions of enslaved Africans landed on the shores of the Americas, a historic tragedy that lasted for four centuries and involved the largest forced migration in world history, negative images of Africa became crucial to the construction of justificatory racist ideologies and racial discrimination against the African Diaspora. The alleged primitivity and undesirability of Africa were used as a hammer to bludgeon the enslaved Africans and their descendants into the complexes of racial inferiority, to make them ashamed of their ancestral continent, appreciate being in America and acquiesce to their subjugation.

The racist opprobrium attached to Haiti goes back to the turn of the 19th century. Once one of the richest slave plantation societies in the Americas, Haiti has never been forgotten or forgiven as the first country in the Americas, indeed in history, where a revolution by an enslaved population succeeded. The Haitian Revolution, which lasted from 1791 to 1803, spawned independence struggles across Latin America and threatened the lucrative slave systems that built the economies of the Americas including the United States and fuelled the industrialization of the Atlantic powers including Britain, the world's first industrial nation.

The United States and most European states refused to recognize and quarantined Haiti for decades. In 1825, France, the former colonial power, in exchange for recognition demanded an indemnity of 90 million Francs, equivalent to more than $40 billion today. These draconian external pressures, combined with the newly liberated country's own internal dysfunctions, crippled Haiti's development prospects and made it a poster child of the costs of Black independence in the Americas. The United States itself occupied Haiti for 19 years from 1915 to 1934 to enforce its economic and political interests on the island.

Thus, in the Euroamerican imaginary and discourse both Africa and Haiti serve as potent signs of otherness, of eternal inferiority, of being less than. On every measure, in the positivist master references of progress, from levels of historicity to humanity, civilization to culture, economics to ethics, sociality to sexuality, they are always found lacking and lagging behind Euroamerica. This is the import of Trump's description of Haiti and African countries as shithole, an image that evokes utter depravity, deprivation, and destitution, of countries, societies and peoples living in unimaginable squalor, bereft of skills, of a people who are beyond the pale in making white America Great Again.

Never mind that in 2012, 41% of African born immigrants in the United States had bachelor degrees and above (64% for Egyptians and 61% for Nigerians), compared to 28% of the overall foreign born, and 33% for native-born Americans. On the other end, while nearly a third of the overall foreign-born population (32%) had less than a high school education, this applied to only 12% of the African-born population (South Africa 3%, Nigeria 4%, and Egypt and Kenya each 5%). Thus, Africans are among the most educated immigrants in the United States.

It can be pointed out that Trump's tirade ignores the actual history of the United States, the fact that it was built by the unpaid labor for centuries of millions of enslaved Africans, and immigrants from Europe and Asia. Despite these contributions, at the beginning of the new Republic, citizenship was racialized and gendered. According to the Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first bills passed by Congress, citizenship was a privilege of free white males. Clearly, the United States has a long history of restrictive and racist immigration policies that tend to flare up during moments of nativist angst and insecurity.

In Trump's bigoted and juvenile vocabulary, many of the immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries came from the shithole countries of the day and were regarded as undesirables in Anglo-Saxon America. For example, the Italians and Irish who flocked in their millions were not deemed "white", and Asians were barred by a series of laws including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (that wasn't repealed till 1943), and the Immigration Act of 1917 barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific region. The 1924 Immigration Act imposed a 2% nationality quota based on the 1890 census. This was intended to limit immigration from non-Anglo-Saxon countries.

Trump's presidency was and continues to be propelled by an upsurge of virulent nativism and xenophobic nationalism that has erupted periodically in American history during moments of profound socioeonomic changes and crises. Demographically, the United States is becoming less white. Populations of African, Asian, and Latino descent have grown rapidly and according to some estimates they are poised to become a majority by 2044. For more than three decades now, neo-liberal globalization has ravaged the livelihoods of tens of millions of American workers. The neo-liberal restructuring of the economy and society has spawned populism led by the very superrich billionaires like Trump who don't care about the poor and middle classes. Populists of Trump's ilk seek to racialize the deepening class inequalities. But racialized populist politics offers cold comfort to pauperized whites.

The Trump phenomenon, political rhetoric, and policy agenda is a product of a more specific conjuncture. It is fueled by a backlash against the Obama presidency and what it represented. Lest we forget, Trump was the godfather of birtherism, the racist lie that Obama was not American-born, a real American, that he was born in Kenya. In the dog whistle politics of the United States, the racial meaning was obvious: Obama, the African, was an illegitimate president, unfit to rule and represent white America.

The African American public intellectual, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has captured this impulse marvelously in several brilliant essays including "My President Was Black" and "The First White President." Coates argues, powerfully and persuasively in my view, that the Trump phenomenon was fueled by pervasive and racist backlash against the first Black President by those committed to reclaiming a vanishing America of white privilege and white supremacy. The Trump presidency, in turn, is propelled by an obsessive drive to dismantle former President Obama's legacy. The ghost of Obama haunts Trump throwing him into frequent spasms of delirious derangement.

The Trump presidency has provoked widespread resistance by the majority of Americans, who never voted for him in the first place, to retake their country, to continue making it a more perfect union dreamt by generations of struggles for inclusive citizenship. Trump may dominate the news cycles like a colossus with his twitter-storms, but he has enjoyed the lowest approval ratings of any president in the history of polling. Journalists have run out adjectives to describe his personal mendacity and apparent madness. Just as he has empowered racists to hate again with impunity, he has inspired even more Americans to fight for decency.

Trump has reinforced a sense of moral superiority among liberals, which is too self- serving. When it comes to the homogenization of Africa and dehumanization of Africans the lines between the angels and the devil are blurred. This is to urge the liberal media and academics to engage in critical self-reflection on how they represent Africa. There is now a large literature on the invention of Africa, the construction of distorted images about Africa. It is clear that Africa suffers from what the renowned Nigerian novelist, Cimamanda Adichie, calls the danger of a single story.

The single story syndrome rests on several tropes: excessive selectivity, sensationalism, stereotyping, and use of special vocabulary. Typically the stories on Africa in the western media, and oftentimes in the African media itself, are highly selective, focus on the sensational, are stereotypical with little nuance, and use vocabulary reserved for African events even if the phenomenon is not particularly African. For example, there is the ubiquitous use of the words "tribe" and "tribal" to describe African phenomena, problems, or practices, which no one uses to describe their European equivalents, as I wrote in a satirical essay twelve years ago entitled, "Angelina Jolie Discovers Africa."

The propensity to reduce Africa to a single story is based on the homogenization of the continent, the pervasive tendency to strip it of its bewildering complexities. This, too, is deeply rooted in the social imaginaries of Africa by both the foes and friends of the continent. But these shortcomings are also evident within the continent itself and in the Pan-African discourses of affirmation. As many critics in African studies have observed, a lot of journalistic and scholarly writing on the countries, societies, and peoples of this vast continent is lazy.

The continent is often reported as a country, eliding the vast differences among its 54 countries, and the sheer size of its landmass and scale and diversity of its histories, societies, economies, cultures, polities, and ecologies. "Africa," or that favourite cartographic label of Africanist scholarship and the overseers of global geopolitics, "Sub-Saharan Africa," often prefaces titles of academic books even when the study is about a very specific place or community.

In 2013, the British newspaper, The Guardian, poignantly captured the careless homogenisation of the continent in an article entitled, "Africa is not a Country." The article looked at articles published covering the continents of Asia and Africa and the three major countries in each, respectively, in 2012 and 2013. For Asia, 2,948 articles mentioned only 'Asia,' 16,090 mentioned China, 8,829 mentioned India, and 8,481 mentioned Japan. In contrast, for Africa, 5,443 mentioned only 'Africa', 6,824 mentioned South Africa, 2,615 mentioned Egypt, and 2,169 mentioned Nigeria. Thus nearly a third (31.9%) of the articles mentioned only 'Africa' compared to a less than one-tenth (8.1%) that mentioned only 'Asia'.

It goes without saying, levels of specificity and differentiation for Europe, not to mention the United States itself, are a lot more pronounced. In other words, Europe and North America, and increasingly Asia, do not suffer from the simplifications and inanities of the single story syndrome that afflicts Africa. It can be argued, the homogenisation of Africans facilitates their dehumanization because they are stripped of the intricate and individual tapestries of their lives.

The homogenisation of Africa is evident in its cartographic contraction. The global maps that most people see tend to follow the Mercator projection invented in the 16th century that inflate the size of Europe and the northern continents. In such mappings Africa is shown as the same size as Greenland, when the continent is in fact 14 times larger. When I taught in the United States and Canada I used to show students maps based on more accurate projections that show that the United States, Europe excluding Russia, China, India, and Japan would fit into the vast landmass called Africa, the second largest continent in the world.

The kind of cartographic, cultural, political and paradigmatic homogenisation and oversimplification of our vast continent that we often find in the popular media and scholarly literature is what sustains the diminution and dehumanization of Africa and Africans. We and our international friends might want to begin removing the ideological and intellectual oxygen that sustains and inflates the racist bigotry upon which an ignorant Trump can hang his "shithole Africa" by thinking, writing, and celebrating the splendid diversities of our beloved continent and its peoples.

Thus, in the discursive realm-the world of producing ideas and images-we must continue the historic project of deconstructing Eurocentrism started by African intellectuals on the continent and in the Diaspora half a millennium ago following the tragic encounter between Europe and Africa that led to the establishment of the modern world system with its economic inequalities and racial hierarchies. In the diplomatic realm, the African Union and African governments must raise the costs of denigrating the continent and its diasporas through the symbolic acts of summoning American ambassadors and recalling their ambassadors to the United States until the American government apologises. Symbols and words matter, otherwise the world would not have been so riled up by Trump's invective. In the economic realm, we need to reprise the Sullivan principles against apartheid for the 21st century-American businesses must respect African sovereignty and speak out against the would be leader of Global Apartheid.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza : Vice Chancellor at United States International University - Africa

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