Afua Hirsch – The Guardian
As we’ve seen in the UK, attacking the identity of people of colour can be a route to political success
Pity Donald Trump. Even his racism is the most unsophisticated kind. Every black and brown person knows a “go back to where you came from” racist. For many of us who have never been migrants, to have this muttered at us was the first signal that to be a visible minority means to be forever perceived as an immigrant. And that being perceived as an immigrant is bad.
“Go back” racists are rarely intellectually capable of engaging with the question of whether the destination they deem so suitable for us actually exists. Trump’s latest outburst – in which he said four congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”, is a case in point. For the US president to say of Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, “if they’re not happy here, they can leave”, makes no sense because the women in question are Americans. Yet it makes perfect sense because they are not white.
The idea that Pressley, who is African American – a community which this year marks the 400th anniversary of having been forcibly brought to the US – should be driven out because she has a view that Trump finds inconvenient, is exactly the racism that bigots have always expressed.
It seems obvious to me that Trump knew his remarks were racist; they were intended to be so. Not only did he claim these congresswomen had other countries to go back to – when three of the four were, in fact, born in the US – he then characterised those places not only as “crime infested” but with governments that are “a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world”. After a short break from Twitter, a round of golf and a chance to see the reaction, Trump then reiterated his remarks repeatedly in person, at a press conference on the White House lawn.
The president denies the racism, of course. His latest tweet claims, laughably, that he doesn’t “have a racist bone in his body”, while his Twitter feed alternates between evidence of his racism and denials of it: a Fox story celebrating “cool” new Republicans of colour, and a video of a black man wearing a “Keep America Great” cap denouncing the idea there is anything racist about Trump. It was truly cringe-inducing to see vice-president Mike Pence’s chief of staff, asked about the ensuing row, playing the classic “I have black friends” card. Trump isn’t racist, Marc Short insisted, “he has an Asian woman of colour in his cabinet”. The congressional Republican party’s response was deafening in its silence.
On the whole, however, Americans have been fairly unambiguous about calling a spade a spade. Those who recognised that a line had been crossed included George Conway, the husband of Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway – who wrote powerfully about his own experience of being assaulted with similarly racist remarks in his own childhood – and Will Hurd, the sole black Republican House member, who described Trump’s tweets as “racist”, “xenophobic” and “inaccurate”.
“Go back” racism is all of those things. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t incisive. As with most prejudice, it says so much more about the person making the remark than it does the intended recipient. It reveals a person who subscribes to the myth of “indigeneity” (that a person cannot fully belong to a nation if they’re not of a certain race); that they fantasise about their multicultural nation reverting to an imagined past steeped in the fantasy of white, racial purity. It shows an interpretation of the relationship between citizens and the state that is rooted in whiteness – believing, like Trump, that people of colour have no right to criticise power, even though democracy depends on it.
It’s ugly and yet, as a black British person, I find a certain relief in witnessing the US version of this problem. As our leaders are fond of saying, we have more in common than divides us. Both our nations are in the grip of populist movements. Both have governments that consistently attack the identities of people of colour in a race to the bottom for nativist, nationalist support. Both have depicted immigration as an existential threat, and both have policies that are merging questions of immigration status into questions of race.
In the UK, the “hostile environment” saw British people of Caribbean and African heritage with a right to stay in the country – in the case of the Windrush scandal, specifically invited into it decades earlier – treated like criminal stowaways. In the US, Trump’s immigration and customs enforcement raids have seen black and brown US citizens feeling compelled to carry their documents around with them to avoid being wrongly identified as illegal immigrants. In both countries, we know that to be a visible minority means to face a presumption of guilt when it comes to our immigration status.
The difference between Britain and the US, however, is that while Americans are having an argument about their known problem of racism, in Britain we are still having an argument about whether an argument even needs to be had.
Theresa May, who brought in the “Go Home” immigration vans, felt able to condemn Trump’s remarks about the four congresswomen as if from a position of moral authority.
Media personalities such as Piers Morgan – who has questioned my right to criticise British “heroes” – or columnists who say that black British figures such as Stormzy should be “grateful” to be in their own country, vigorously deny racism is intended.
Americans are more likely to acknowledge the existence of the kind of racism about which British people remain in denial. The problem in the US is that racism still has its uses. The question for the next presidential election will increasingly be, how many are willing to be complicit in the cost of that racism in exchange for the benefit – in this case, the support of an electoral base fired up by the president’s reviling of migrants and people of colour.
In a press conference responding to Trump’s remarks, the congresswomen affected expressed a desire not to let Trump’s tweets achieve what is, in reality, always racism’s true intent: distraction. “We should not take the bait,” Pressley said. She is right. Trump is turning on these congresswomen quite deliberately, having calculated that, regardless of their policies – which are centred substantially on addressing class inequality – US voters aren’t ready for a Democratic party which looks like them.
Yet it would be wrong to be dismissive of rhetoric as racist as this. Its intended purpose is certainly to play on the fears our racialised pasts have deposited in the present. But that can be a very reliable political strategy.