When President Donald Trump wondered aloud in a congressional meeting “why we let in all these people from sh!#hole countries” many people’s natural reaction was a mix of outrage and embarrassment. But there is an upside to Trump’s blunt, ignorant declaration. Hear me out.
First, there’s no denying the fact that Trump’s comments are deeply damaging. They betray deep prejudices against people who are poor and non-white. It’s inconceivable to Trump that people in poor, non-white countries could possibly be educated. Or that they might have nice things in their home countries – cities, museums, culture, etc.
Second, his comments also further harm the reputation of our nation, a reputation that will be left in tatters by the time he leaves office. It destroys the confidence other people have in us, not only to do the right things, but to be fair. Under Trump, this country has greatly reduced its stature as a world leader.
So, you ask, what is the upside?
What I found lacking in the analysis of Trump’s blunt charges against the Third World, was a recognition that his sentiments were in no way unique to him. Trump’s myopic ignorance about other places – other predominantly non-white places – is widely shared by a great many people who use a similar sentiment to write off people and places they’d otherwise have to care about.
And we don’t feel that way simply about other nations. We say the same things about whole cities. We say it about neighborhoods a 10-minute drive from our own homes. We might use a more artful adjective like “sketchy,” but it means the same thing. Trump’s remarks are an opportunity to think about that.
What this reflex allows us to do is write these places off as if the very nature of the place – its problems with poverty, crime and lack of opportunity – is an intrinsic result only of that place. You don’t want go there. It’s a sh!#hole. Best to forget it exists and move along.
It’s for that reason we carry on and gladly ignore the problems in our own backyard. We let gun and drug crime rage on. We allow our public-school system to go without much-needed investment. We let whole blocks of buildings and infrastructure crumble to the ground. No need to worry ourselves about it. What do you expect in a sh!#hole?
Fortunately, there are efforts to undo the damage of this sort of sh!#hole logic. This past Monday –Martin Luther King day – is a great example, in which thousands of people across the city made an effort to reach out to places around the city – to people in need – and lend a hand. It’s a time for us to reflect on the fact that we are all “in this” together. To be ignorant or dismissive of places and people, to ignore their struggles, is harmful to our own well being.
As Martin Luther King wrote in his 1963 masterpiece, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”