Illustration by Alexxander Dovelin
This article is one in a four-part series on climate change. Read the full series here.
A few days after a disastrous earthquake hit my home country of Ecuador this past April, my social media feeds piled up with that skeleton meme with ecuas writing, “waiting for Facebook to provide solidarity with Ecuador filters like—.” I probably shared it at least once, even though I knew a social media display of solidarity was never going to happen. Even the vehemently xenophobic, Islamophobic white supremacists at Charlie Hebdo got a whole social media solidarity campaign, but tens of thousands of dispossessed people sleeping in rubble who-knows-where? As if. All too often, tragedies that take the lives of white people are publicly mourned in the United States while tragedies that take the lives of Black and brown people are not. It hurt to think of the millions of Ecuadorian immigrants in the diaspora realizing that the chaos their loved ones were facing back home wasn’t going to gain any international sympathy or media attention. I caught one mention of the earthquake on CNN buried in a scroll at the bottom of the screen, passing by faster than I could read it.
But even media coverage doesn’t guarantee assistance. The disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina and its mismanagement were broadcast across international media for all to see, and while the hurricane took many lives and will impact the Gulf region for generations to come, the media spectacle showing the hurricane’s effects didn’t translate into solidarity. New Orleanians were abandoned, almost as an example for what we, the underprivileged in the most privileged place on the planet, have to look forward to. Lots of (probably well-meaning) folks, like Soledad O’Brien on CNN, have said as much, but only in contrast to those Other places: “If you turned down the sound on your television, if you didn’t know where you were, you might think it was Haiti or maybe one of those African countries.” Or Nancy Gibbs in Time magazine: “These things happened in Haiti, but not here.” Hurricane Katrina happened over a decade ago, but Louisiana and surrounding states were hit with yet more floods this past summer, and there was Bill Nye on CNN, commenting, “…and this is the developed world! This is the U.S….”
In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat breaks down these senseless comparisons that not only work to denigrate those places and their kin in the diaspora but reveal a feigned naivete that seems to lie at the heart of (liberal) American optimism. (Those on the left spouting “we’re better than this!” rhetoric during our present presidential transition might need to brush up on American history.) “It’s hard for those of us from places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince, and those of us who are immigrants who still have relatives living in places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince,” she writes, “not to wonder why the so-called developed world needs so desperately to distance itself from us, especially at times when an unimaginable disaster shows us exactly how much alike we are.” Let’s be real: This kind of rhetoric is a coded way of saying, “We deserve better. They don’t.” I don’t think people like O’Brien or Gibbs consciously believe this, though. I think this is the message the United States sends to the rest of the world on a daily basis, from the events and ideals at its foundation, to its current foreign policies, to the way it treats migrants of all kinds right here in the god-blessed U.S. of A. I think people like O’Brien and Gibbs represent so many in the American public who feel the need to help craft a revisionist fairy tale about their country to boost its self-esteem and to swallow the reality that one in eight households here live in hunger (or “food insecurity”) according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They treat the Story of America like a child crying home to his parents because the kids at school called him racist. The revisionist consoles the child, saying, “Now now, son, tell them you aren’t racist, you’re alt-right.”
After Katrina, George W. Bush eventually referred to stranded New Orleanians, saying, “These people are not refugees, they are Americans,” which geographer and academic Neil Smith called “doubly cynical,” saying that such statements sought to “sanitize the experience of the approximately 400,000 people displaced, evacuated, and evicted from New Orleans by bestowing on them some kind of superiority and respect not normally given to ‘refugees.’” And it’s doubly cynical because just the year before, Bush’s administration repatriated Haitian refugees in the United States while Haiti suffered the blows of the catastrophic Hurricane Jeanne. (Wrap a yellow ribbon around that.) Flash forward to this past October when the Obama administration deliberated over whether or not to deport millions of Haitians during the disastrous Hurricane Matthew. “The administration’s immigration policy means that many deportees face the deadly consequences of global warming,” wrote journalist Aura Bogado, pointing out “the tragic irony is that many of those deportees are coming from countries that have contributed very little to climate change.” A decade ago, Smith wrote that Bush’s statement on New Orleanians “exposes what Bush thinks of the rest of the world, demeaning millions of others who remain merely ‘refugees,’ a social category presumably lower than ‘Americans.’” His words still ring true now.
I vividly remember a conversation I had with a couple of Australian backpackers in a hostel in Ecuador, particularly their shock when I mentioned the hunger I sometimes experienced as a child in New York in a “food-insecure” home. In Create Dangerously, Danticat continues: “The poor in the richest country in the word should not be poor at all. They should not even exist. Maybe that’s why both their leaders and a large number of their fellow citizens don’t even realize that they actually do exist.” The reason why I referred to such surprised reactions as “feigned naiveté” is because it’s no secret that millions of people in the United States are homeless, hungry, and unemployed or underemployed. You can’t visit Times Square without stepping over such people. We all know exactly what’s what, but some people just look away and try not to think about it. That’s the America I know. Especially after, as author Junot Diaz put it, “Katrina revealed America’s third world,” these realities should be news to no one. As Smith concludes, “It is not only in the so-called third world, we can now see, that one’s chances of surviving a disaster are more than anything dependent on one’s race, ethnicity, and social class.”
It is in times of disasters and uprisings that the exported American fairy tale is exposed for what it is: bullshit. Now that we are collectively watching the dawn of Trump’s Great America break, those who believed “third-world” Americans were being tolerated up until now are having a hard time reckoning with reality: Many of us never were. Many of us didn’t need Katrina or Trump to show us just how “Real America” (in former Iowa Congressman Joe Walsh’s words) sees us. We may be hurt, but not surprised. In this country, the notion of citizenry is something we’re told must be proved. Many of us have been stripped of this slowly over time while others experience its loss in an instant in detention or on planes to who-knows-where as I write this. Danticat expands on this idea, saying, “Perhaps this America does have more in common with the developing world than with the one it inhabits. For the poor and outcast everywhere dwell within their own country, where more often than not they must fend for themselves.” She continues: “That’s why one can so easily become a refugee within one’s own borders—because one’s perceived usefulness and precarious citizenship are always in question, whether in Haiti or in that other America, the one where people have no flood insurance.”
None of this is to downgrade the differences in access to resources between those in the United States and those elsewhere. Rather, it’s to insist that not only was America never great, it was and never will be greater than anywhere else. As a child of an immigrant with a blue passport, I know it’s possible that two realities—that of precarious citizenship and that of immense and precious privilege—can exist in one place. In fact, it’s during dark times like these that we might learn to think beyond binaries and work to make a world where borders don’t define who’s worthy of aid. It is borders—the establishment of the settler state—that create the deficiencies that make aid necessary during disasters; it is the settler state known as the United States that is largely responsible for those unnatural disasters in the first place. “Among the many realities brought to light by Hurricane Katrina was that never again could we justifiably deny the existence of this country within a country,” Danticat writes, “that other America, which America’s immigrants and the rest of the world may know much more intimately than many Americans do, the America that is always on the brink of humanitarian and ecological disaster.” And, trust, privilege won’t always make you disaster-proof. Watch out, Real America. Other America is coming after you.