It wasn’t so much word of President Donald Trump’s scatological contempt for places like Africa and Haiti that sent a Duke University instructor around the bend late this week as it was the efforts of some people on the political right to defend it.
Jonathan Katz, director of the Franklin Humanities Institute’s media and journalism initiative, responded with a long Twitter rant that pointed out that Haiti’s enduring poverty is in considerable measure a function of the efforts of France, the United States and other world powers of the 19th and early 20th century to block the Caribbean country’s development as an independent nation.
That included the 150 million franc reparation demand France, Haiti’s former colonial master, imposed on it at gunpoint in 1825 as punishment for the country’s successful independence rebellion and overthrow of slavery. Haiti didn’t finish paying off the debt until 1947, and its existence triggered a bunch of knock-on effects that included a U.S. occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934.
In falling behind Trump, who at a White House meeting objected to accepting immigrants from Haiti and what he termed “s---hole countries” in Africa, supporters are showing that they both “assume that Haiti is just naturally poor” and that its poverty is “an inherent state bor[n] of the corruption of the people there, in all senses of the word,” Katz wrote.
“And let’s just say out loud why that is: It’s because Haitians are black,” he continued. “Racists have needed Haiti to be poor since it was founded. They pushed for its poverty. They have celebrated its poverty. They have tried to profit from its poverty.”
Katz is no stranger to the issue because he was chief correspondent for the Associated Press in 2010 when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated the country. He has since written a book about international relief efforts there that’s critical of them for having made the situation worse.
He said spoke up because Trump used that issue against former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Florida, which has a Haitian-American community and which ultimately gave its electoral votes to the Republican. But since taking office, the president has “done nothing good and a lot of bad” for the Caribbean nation, Katz said.
The bad includes his attempts to restrict immigration from the country, as Haitian immigrants’ remittances to their homeland fuel about a quarter of its economy. “When you start rounding people up and deporting them, or even threatening to, you create a deep amount of uncertainty on a lot of levels” that can trigger more economic harm, Katz said.
The administration has also signaled it won’t contribute to the compensation the United Nations is trying to assemble for a botched peacekeeping effort in 2010 that wound up triggering a cholera epidemic, he said.
Katz has been affiliated with Duke since 2016, starting as a writer in residence before becoming director of the Franklin Institute’s media initiative. His wife is a history Ph.D. student who’s worked with the Franklin Insitute’s Haiti Lab project.
Katz said his tweetstorm included nothing that’s “terribly controversial” among people well-versed in Haitian history.
The French reparation demand on Haiti dwarfed the 68 million francs France received from the U.S. for the Louisiana Purchase.
“It’s the equivalent of ‘Paul Revere got on his horse and rode through town,’” Katz said of his historical account. “But one of the most important facts about life in the United States is that Americans don’t know our own history, especially about what we’ve done in other parts of the world. A lot of people haven’t heard the story before and I’m glad to have been the one to tell it today.”