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President Trump sparked outrage last week when, during a speech in front of dozens of uniformed law enforcement officers, he suggested they need not worry about the safety of suspects in their custody. But during the speech, Trump said something else that many found just as cringeworthy, yet received less media attention.
“These are animals,” Trump said, one of four times he used the term to describe members of MS-13, a violent street gang that began in Los Angeles and has ties to Central America.
Calling people animals — even violent people who commit heinous crimes — did not sit well with some.
Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke wrote that Trump’s repeated use of the term was “intentionally dehumanizing an entire group of people.” He added, “You call them animals, something peddlers of hate have done for ages.”
Likening people of color to animals is a key foundation of racist ideas, says historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”
Kendi cites writings as far back as 15th-century Europe in which Africans are compared to beasts or animals to justify the nascent slave trade. This characterization of Africans as subhuman would become one of the chief justifications for American slavery.
“Stamped from the Beginning,” which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction, challenges the idea that ignorant, hateful people produce racism. Instead, Kendi argues that powerful people instituted discriminatory policies for their own economic or political self-interests, which in turn produced racist ideas that feed ignorance and hate.
Centuries later, the idea of black people and other marginalized groups such as Latino immigrants as animals has endured — and not just in reference to criminal behavior. Last year, the director of a nonprofit organization in West Virginia referred to former first lady Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels.” References to the Obamas as animals were very common during their eight years in office.
Kendi, who recently joined the faculty of American University in Washington, where he will launch the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center, talked with us about the continued use of animal imagery when referring to people of color.
As a rationalization for discriminatory tough-on-crime policies:
“There’s a problem and that problem is crime. … So the question becomes why does crime exist? One answer is people are animals, beastly criminals, and in order to fight crime, we have to have tough-on-crime policies. We have to urge law and order. We have to mass incarcerate them because they are beastly criminals and the only way to stop them from committing crimes is to put them behind bars. … To advance law-and-order policies you have to [portray black and brown people] simultaneously as uncontrollable animals who need to be roughed up.
“The other explanation for why black and brown people commit crimes and violent crimes is the circumstances of their environment: There are high levels of black crime because of high levels of poverty and unemployment. But that calls for a different way of fighting crime such as providing more jobs and resources to struggling black and Latino communities.”
Rarely applied to white people:
“It seems to be that the president and other like-minded people are not calling all these people who commit heinous crimes ‘animals.’ Poor people of color are notoriously called animals when they commit these heinous acts, while richer and white people are more likely to be called ‘crazy.’ When we call someone crazy, it begs the question of what is wrong with them: What drove them to commit this heinous crime? When we call someone an animal, it does not beg the question of why, because violence is supposedly in the very nature or culture of human animals. And that is why we have so many people thinking that violence is in the very nature or culture of black people, especially poor inner-city black people.”
A deliberate political tactic:
“I think we can sit back and just call Trump ignorant. But calling Trump hateful, I think that’s taking the easy way out. The more sophisticated way of understanding what [he’s doing] is to understand that he is trying to galvanize his base and he probably knows that the ideas that he is stating are harmful, are going to potentially lead to people being harmed, but that’s not what matters. What matters to him is to show the police community and all of America that he is sympathetic to the policing community over this multiyear debate over race and policing. He’s showing that he is their defender.”
Not even the first black first lady is immune:
“I think she is more threatening than that young gang member of color who Trump was referring to. She is more of a threat to racist ideas. The fullness of her humanity demonstrates the fullness of black humanity. But instead of accepting the fullness of Black humanity, racist ideologues try to take Michelle Obama and other successful black people down to size. And they take Michelle Obama down to size by rendering her animal-like. It was so disrespectful what she had to endure as our first lady, but racist ideas have always disrespected humanity. Racist ideas have spared no one from the outhouse to the White House.”
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