Letter from America


By Prof. John Harbeson

With this essay, I am making an unprecedented exception to my strict policy of not writing about American politics in this column, but always about Kenya, or Kenya related matters.

Today, if I were privileged to be a US ambassador to Kenya, another developing country, or indeed any country, I would resign.

Indeed, I cannot imagine how I could have a found way to remain in country had anything remotely like the present situation emerged, during any of my three tours; teaching in Kenya, teaching in Ethiopia, and serving in Kenya as USAID’s Regional Democracy and Governance Advisor.

The reason would be that I could no longer officially represent a country whose president has, flagrantly and profanely, defied and defiled core American values of respect for all peoples and nations, including those with which the US has significant policy differences. Nor could I continue to represent my country in the councils of the nations who come together to create and uphold an international community based upon the rule of law, commitment to basic human rights, democracy and transparency.  Obviously, all nations fall short to varying degrees in upholding these high principles, but still uphold them in principle even when they dispute their proper interpretation in specific instances.

By contrast, the US president has demeaned these core values of the family of nations by expressing contempt for African nations, Mexico, Haiti and El Salvador, and in the crudest, most vile terms. Specifically, in a White House meeting of the President with a delegation of members of both Houses of Congress at which these racist comments were made about Africa, Haiti, El Salvador and (implicitly all), 54 sub-Saharan countries. The President was credibly reported to have said these immigrants in the US should all go home because they are rapists, AIDS infected or, otherwise criminals. He said Nigerians should “go back to their huts.” These outrageous utterances referenced a United States in which all of us are immigrants, descendants of immigrants, citizens, living in the US legally, or what Canada has felicitously termed a country’s “first citizens.”

Implicitly, the President’s remarks seem to define as eligible would-be immigrants who would be people who have already established their employability in the US, but then the president has chosen to delegitimise and trash that criterion by suggesting that applicants from the aforementioned countries would be categorically disqualified for their presumed lack of the requisite skills and achievements that would benefit the US.

But events have long bypassed the President.  In almost every profession –doctors, lawyers, teachers, and many others—their ranks have been visibly and widely strengthened by immigrants from those same countries and many like them, after as well as before they have arrived. At the same time, large but untold numbers of immigrants have capably filled a long list of necessary jobs, achieving enhanced standards of living on jobs that have not attracted other Americans. The President has apparently forgotten that immigration policy is supposed to benefit individuals as well as security and other public policy needs.

More fundamentally, the President’s criterion ignores an underlying purpose of supporting immigration: compassion for those in distress from natural climatic events or other domestic cataclysms, something with which many African countries have extensive experience, albeit with many fewer resources of their own and, in some cases significant attendant political risks. Racist denigration of immigrant peoples of colour risks extinguishing the whole core purpose of immigration for anyone and everyone who may rightly understand immigration which is an option for many legitimate reasons.

Much harder than chastising a president for offensive and vile language used to disrespect the peoples and nations of at least two continents is how one tries to repair the damage done, or at least try to. At the very least, the more expressions of profound disgust with these utterances, in tone and substance, the better.

An unfortunate consequence of incidents like this is that they risk subtracting attention and energy from addressing constructively the very problems that the US president has chosen to demean in such vulgar terms, not to mention many other critically important of equal importance.

Another insidious but long term adverse consequence of outrages like this is that they will gradually sink into the world’s media chronicles, displaced by fresh headline grabbing events. In that way, like malware, through backdoors, to quiet residence in the realm of normality, the legion of defenders of civilised discourse and diplomacy must do everything possible to not just not allow us to become jaded by events like this one, but gird us to definitively consign them to the trash heap of history. ^

Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here