The dirty (and racist) origins of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant slurRoundup
tags: racism, immigration, Trump
When President Trump described Africa and Haiti as “shithole countries” (or, from some accounts, “shithouse countries”) in a meeting about immigration policy with lawmakers last week, he used racist imagery ripped straight out of the Ku Klux Klan’s playbook at the turn of the last century to equate nonwhite immigrants with waste.
While many might have assumed he was simply being vulgar and generally racist, he was tapping into a specific long-standing and corrosive idea — that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. This notion has a history that spans back to white insecurity in the middle of the 19th century as emancipation and mass immigration transformed American society. The result was a nation where ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, how American society’s wastes have been managed.
Immigration informed this stereotype in the 19th century, as it does today. Racism conflating nonwhite immigrants with filth originated in that era — though then, unlike now, the population of immigrants considered “unclean” was more expansive, including Eastern and Southern Europeans, along with peoples originating from the Americas, Africa and Asia. Epithets like “greaser” and “sheenie” became common insults. These terms presupposed that Italians, Mexicans and Jews had greasier, oilier skin and hair, and that this condition was a biological fact and social problem.
These ugly slurs were common in taverns and streets, and if the words were not used in university lecture halls, the ideas that created them certainly were. University of Wisconsin sociologists John R. Commons and Edward Alsworth Ross were two of the many educated eugenicists who saw the new immigrants as racially inferior to native-born whites. Ross, in his book The Old World in the New (published on the eve of World War I), laid out a complex and occasionally contradictory classification scheme for the newcomers to American shores. On the differences between Jews from different parts of Europe, Ross claimed that the type of Jew depended upon the region, with Romanian Jews being of “a high type” and Jews from Galicia being the lowest.
These scholars helped formulate and advance the notion of “race suicide,” a fear that white Americans were losing a demographic battle against ostensibly inferior immigrants who would pollute the pure racial character of white Americans. (Repackaged as “white genocide,” such ideas trended on Twitter nationwide in the weeks after Trump’s election.) ...
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