Because of systemic racism, not ignorance, Haiti is what Donald Trump will never have the courage to acknowledge.

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Analyse du Prof Claude Joseph sur la declaration du président Trump

President Donald Trump’s consistent derogatory remarks about minority in general, and blacks in particular, are clear instances of systemic racism, not ignorance. Call it as it is, Trump is not a racially ignorant person, he is a pure racist who staunchly believes that certain groups or races are inferior. He has been bold and crystal clear from the get-go. Thus, the euphemism of racial ignorance can hardly fit his personality. He may be a rational ignorant person, but not racially ignorant. Being rationally ignorant is the fact that one deliberately chooses not to know because from his or her understanding the cost of knowing exceeds its benefit. With respect to Haiti, it is because of systemic racism, but not ignorance, that Trump will never have the courage to acknowledge the historical importance and achievement of this West Indian republic.
Haiti is, to use Trump’s own racial slur, this “shithole country” that was born as an independent nation-state in 1804 as a result of a unique and successful revolutionary war that not only ended French colonial rule, as the American Revolution against England had done for the USA in 1776, but that also, unlike the latter, ended racial slavery and declared all citizens to be equal. This happened in a world community that was neither ready nor willing to accept that a country be governed by former black slaves, most of them freshly captured from Africa, survivors of the middle passage. Indicative of this is that some 17 years before the independence of Haiti, the United States Constitution, written in 1787, counted each enslaved black person as three-fifths of a white person with respect to state representation in the Congress.
The first successful slave uprising in the new world was indeed a threat to the world as it then was to the extent that slavery was the cornerstone of the thriving system of merchant capitalism that was profiting Europe, devastating Africa, and propelling the rapid expansion of the Americas. Hence, it is small wonder that France staunchly refused to acknowledge Haiti’s independence despite the fact that 15 years before, in August 1789, its National Constituent Assembly passed the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,’ which in its article 1 declared that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Between their assertion that freedom was a universal human right and their equally strong belief that it is important for France to have overseas possession should it maintain its power and prosperity, the French revolutionaries had to painfully wrestle with the problem of reconciling the principle of their country’s national interest and the principle of universal freedom. In this respect, the Haitian Revolution represented, as one Haitian scholar notes, the most concrete expression of the idea that “the rights proclaimed in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were indeed universal”.
Haitians of course are proud of who they are, and stay strong, despite all odds, every time they remember that if we today live in a world in which democracy is meant to exclude no one, it is in no small part, as Laurent Dubois puts it, because of the actions of those slaves in Saint-Domingue who insisted that human rights were theirs too. This “shithole country” led a revolution, to quote Malick W. Ghachem (2012) in length here, that:
“Forever transformed New Word slavery and the Atlantic world more generally, providing the single most important inspiration for slave resistance and abolitionism in the modern era. Moreover, by driving Napoleon to abandon his dream of restoring the French Caribbean empire and to sell Louisiana to the United states in 1803, the Haitian Revolution initiated a long-term shift in the geopolitical orientation of the French empire. It also greatly facilitated the westward expansion and the rise of the cotton plantation economy of the United states, with consequences that can be most clearly seen in the events of the American Civil War. Indeed, the distinctive imprint of Haitian revolutionary ideology can be seen as far down as the litigation that produced the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The notion of ‘public rights’ that Homer Plessy embraced in that case to challenge (unsuccessfully) Louisiana’s railway-car segregation law was the outgrowth of an Atlantic tradition of anti-case activism engendered by free people of color who emigrated from Saint-Domingue to Louisiana during and after the Haitian Revolution.(p. 2)
Those who know Haiti’s history will by no means be surprised by racial slurs of these kinds but Haitians of course appreciate when an American journalist like Anderson Cooper intelligently reminds Trump that “the people of Haiti have been through more … withstood more, they have fought back against more injustice than our President ever has.” Somehow, Anderson’s powerful remarks, a rebuttal to systemic racism, echo James G. Leyburn, the author of ‘The Haitian People,’ who kindly in 1941 invited his fellow westerners to devise a new descriptive vocabulary as well as an entirely new frame of reference should they have a better understanding of this West Indian republic. The author believes that by carrying out their own cultural interpretations when visiting the Caribbean neighbor, westerners are likely to misunderstanding what they see in Haiti, for it is very easy to think of all colored people in terms of their own. Notwithstanding Leyburn’s judicious advice, Haiti has constantly been a subject of ridiculous and ethnocentric slurs. In his book entitled ‘Underdevelopment is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case,’ Lawrence Harrison, a former USAID mission director to many Latin American countries, stated that there is something going on in the minds of the Haitians that obstructs progress and facilitates the perpetuation of stagnant, exploitative, repressive system. Along a similar line, Robert Rotberg, the author of “Haiti: The Politics of Squalor,” argues that there is an element in the mental configuration of non-elite Haitians that makes dictatorship and brutality possible. These persistent derogatory remarks are clear instances of systematic racism, not ignorance.
While Trump’s systematic attack on minority groups in general and Haiti in particular conveys clearly his racist stance, systemic racism, however, goes beyond this. A clear instance of its manifestation can be seen in the delivery and management of $6 billion in humanitarian and recovery fund disbursed by bilateral and multilateral donors in response to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in January 12, 2010. On the pretext that the “shithole” Haitian government was too corrupt to use aid resources wisely or that the country Public Financial Management (PMF) system was not reliable, less than 10 percent of that aid went directly to the government of Haiti. Of this $6 billion disbursed to stimulate the local economy, create jobs, and reduce poverty by means, among others, of cash transfers to the poor and local procurement, bizarrely less than 0.6 percent was disbursed to Haitian businesses and organizations. Huge contracts went to such Washington based for-profit international development companies.
In fact, as Robert Maguire notes, criticisms of the fact that the Haitian government is bypassed and that outsiders own most of the aid allocated to Haiti might have been muted had the billions of U.S. bilateral assistance spent in recent decades resulted in improvement of social and economic status of Haitians. However, the overall outcome of this complex transfer process has been the failure of U.S bilateral aid to make a significant and lasting impact on improving the conditions of Haiti’s neediest, resource-starved people. In 2012, puzzled by this contrasting reality between massive outpouring of money and persistent poverty in Haiti, Ramachandran and Walz ask: “where has all the money gone?” In 2013, one year after this question was asked, Jonathan Katz shows how the world come to save Haiti and left behind a nightmare. Three years after more than half of American adults gave money for Haiti as part of a genuine global response, the promises of alleviating poverty, rebuilding safer cities, and strengthening Haiti to face future disasters remain unfulfilled.
Just one day before January 12, Donald Trump chooses to irritate a wide open wound caused by what Jonathan Katz eloquently describes as ‘The Big Truck that Went By.’ But Haitians are stronger than what Trump could ever imagine. Haiti, this impoverished nation, is the expression of concrete freedom, something the likes of Donald Trump will never have the courage to acknowledge. Not because of ignorance, but because of systemic racism.
Claude Joseph
Assistant Professor – MPA Program Long Island University School of Business,
Public Administration and Information Sciences