Opinion: UJ’s Prof Adekeye Adebajo on US President’s remarks on negative stereotyping of Africa

Written by Professor Adekeye Adebajo

The Pinocchio-like American president Donald Trump’s recent reported query about why his country was accepting so many immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa and Haiti – a country the United States (US) had militarily occupied between 1915 and 1934 – has been widely condemned. In a reversion to Hitlerite notions of Aryan racial purity, Trump also wondered why the US did not bring in more – presumably blonde and blue-eyed – immigrants from Norway. He had earlier reportedly depicted Haitians as AIDS-infected and Nigerians as living in huts. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had called for Muslim immigrantss to be banned from America, promised to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, and termed Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists.”

But despite the outrage at Trump’s remarks, he was expressing views that are widely held within the US political establishment and among the wider general population. Most politicians are, however, discreet enough to keep such views to themselves. But the widespread stereotyping of Africa in the US media and Hollywood has helped to shape views like Trump’s. It was the fact that these were so publicly expressed in such vulgar terms that made them so striking. Anti-black and anti-foreigner prejudices and policies have in fact been displayed and supported by US presidents and officials for decades – writes Prof Adekeye Adebayo, Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

US president, Dwight Eisenhower, noted in 1954 that segregrationist white Southerners were “not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.” Lyndon Johnson – who, as president, oversaw the passing of major civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965 – as a US Senator for two decades, regularly referred to civil rights legislation as “nigger bills”. Richard Nixon described black Americans as “Negro bastards” who “live like a bunch of dogs.”

The apartheid-supporting Ronald Reagan vetoed sanctions against the racist South African government in 1986 that required a two-thirds Congressional majority to overturn. Domestically, the former Hollywood actor also infamously stereotyped black women on social benefits, resulting in media depictions of “welfare queens.” Reagan’s “war on drugs” was widely seen as targeting black Americans. His senior diplomat on Africa, Chester Crocker, described a clearly rigged election by Liberia’s American-backed autocrat, Samuel Doe, in 1985 as “a rare achievement in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World.”

More recently, US president Bill Clinton – often erroneously depicted as a good friend of Africa – delayed acknowledging the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 to avoid a legal obligation to intervene. He then forced the withdrawal of most of a 2,500-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission from Rwanda in one of the worst cases of racism in international relations. Clinton later admitted that doubling the UN force would have halted the genocide. Domestically, his signing of crime legislation in 1994 that led to the incarceration of millions of non-violent black and Latino youths, and his support for welfare reform two years later, resulted in the immiseration of millions of vulnerable Americans. Hillary Clinton’s support for these policies – and infamous depiction of young offenders as “super predators” – did much to damage her support among African-American voters during the 2016 presidential elections.

In 2001, George W. Bush Jr., demonstrated his ignorance of Africa by speaking about the continent in stereotypical terms, as if it were a country rather than a continent: “Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease.” Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, voted against Nelson Mandela’s release from prison as a Congressman in 1986, branding the African National Congress a “terrorist organisation”. In 1995, Bush’s Jamaican-American secretary of state, Colin Powell, described Nigerians as “scammers who just tend not to be honest”. Most astonishingly, the head of the US Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, argued six years later, that AIDS drugs would be difficult to administer in Africa because “many Africans don’t know what Western time is. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives. And if you say one o’clock in the afternoon, they don’t know what you are talking about. They know morning, they know noon, they know evening, they know the darkness at night. People do not know what watches and clocks are, they do not use Western means for telling time. They use the sun.”

Even the first black US president, Kenyan-Kansan, Barack Obama, was not free of peddling stereotypes about Africa that made it sound like a “shithole”. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama talked about the continent in broad-brushed, Afro-pessimistic strokes: “There are times when considering the plight of Africa – the millions racked by AIDS, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of twelve-year-old guerrillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s – I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair.” Most of the African references in Obama’s 2009 Nobel peace prize speech were to Somalia as a “failed state” of terrorism, piracy, and famine; genocide in Darfur; and rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Trump’s views are clearly crass, nativist, and abhorrent. But his negative stereotyping of Africa is not uncommon among America’s political establishment.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in the Guardian (Nigeria) on 21 January 2018; and Business Day (South Africa) on 22 January 2018.

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