It was just over 10 years ago that Haiti suffered an earthquake so devastating it is rated #6 on the list of 10 deadliest natural disasters since the 6th century. I am a Haitian-American, living in the States since 1964. I was not on the ground when it happened, but the collective national psyche of Haitians throughout the world collapsed along with all those buildings and structures, died a little with the 300,000 people who perished, and hobbled in spirit with the over one million wounded and displaced. Today, as we in the United States and many countries around the world grapple with the long-ignored effects of racism on modern day society, I can’t help thinking about the Haiti earthquake. Because racism (along with corruption and greed) is at the root of the why of the earthquake’s outsized impact on the Haitian people, just as racism crawls through the infrastructure of this and other countries’ dysfunctional state of affairs.
As evidenced by the outpouring of heart-wrenching stories from African-Americans and other people of color on a daily basis in the last month (which feels like years), incidences of racism often have the effect of rocking people to their core. Just as anyone who has experienced a strong earthquake will attest, you come away feeling off-kilter, confused, shaken, and incapable of explaining why the ground beneath your feet has gone the way of quicksand. You’re left with a pounding heart shouting What the hell just happened?! And just as with a big earthquake, whose aftermath you only come to understand with each passing day — who died, what broke, what’s left, where do I go now, and how do I move forward—so does racism leave in its slug-like wake a slimy realization that despite your best efforts, you’re still not perceived as good enough, smart enough, or human enough to warrant opportunities offered to the least of us, educational standards granted to most of us, and the respect for life that so many take for granted.
In Haiti, the severity of the earthquake’s strike wasn’t all due to mother nature. It had just as much to do with post-colonial racism from France and America, which placed an embargo on trade with Haiti after it fought off the French and declared itself the first independent, slave-free state in 1804. Reason for the embargo? The U.S. worried that its own slaves would catch the revolutionary bug. That economic blockage lasted some 60 years and crippled the island’s economy. From 1915–1934, the U.S. occupied Haiti, and, in addition to helping rebuild our infrastructure (new roads, hospitals, schools, bridges — thank you!), it seized the banks and the national treasury, and put itself in charge of collecting taxes, customs duties and more, skimming billions from the nation’s economy along the way (thanks a lot!). A U.S.-backed 30-year dictatorship, during which Haiti’s treasury functioned more like a personal bank account further eroded Haiti’s finances. There’s a lot more about Haiti’s complicated history than can be said here, which includes a long list of flawed Haitian rulers; but throw in additional economic blockades by the U.S. in the early 90s, and a 200-year-history of racist infighting between mulattos and black Haitians, and you end up with the perfect setup.
The reason so many buildings collapsed during the 2010 earthquake was because of corruption and greed, which allowed for shoddy construction throughout the country (like in so many other countries around the world), enabled by centuries-old racist U.S. policies and a prejudiced ruling class that averted its eyes to the unavoidable wreck waiting to happen. But it wasn’t just the poor who suffered. No one escapes the wrath of racism. Everyone in Haiti knows someone or several people who died. Concrete shacks and fancy hotels cracked. Insurance companies stiffed the rich.
Now, when we think about the impact of racism on the rich in general, we must put aside the 1% because they always seem to turn out OK, don’t they? Its pernicious effects tend to wallop everyone else, though — the poor, the middle and upper middle classes. Let’s take a simple example from recent history in the United States. Black families start moving into white neighborhoods. Racist white people flee like bats out of hell are on their tails. In order to get as far away from people of color as possible, they move into enclaves that are much more expensive than they can afford, thereby cutting back on things they enjoyed before — dinners out, that new car, the family vacation. Both workers and owners at those restaurants lose their earnings; car manufacturers and airlines raise prices on everyone to make up for the lost income. When the loss of the lifestyle they used to love becomes too much to bear, racist white people apply for credit cards and run up debt that is often hard to shake. That’s when the ground beneath them starts to shake and they spend the rest of their lives hopping from one foot to the other to stay steady.
Back in those neighborhoods, when those racist white people left they took the taxes they were paying along with them. And since taxes fund schools and quality of education, future generations get whacked at the knee just as they’re starting to walk. That’s when the tremors start for them, as well. Racist white people have been selling the trickle-down theory for decades — give more money to the rich and their spending will trickle down to the rest of us. Except that in reality, it’s not more economic activity trickling down, it’s less.
My husband likes to recount the story he read years ago of public swimming pools throughout the south, which, after integration, allowed blacks access to the swimming privileges whites had long enjoyed. In the cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face scenario, rather than mix with blacks, community leaders chose to deprive everyone instead, emptying the pools of water and filling them with cement. Today many former public pools still lie underground. If you’re lucky enough to have a private pool, good for you. If not, too bad.
Racist white people of all classes, and racist people of color like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have long decried the “nanny state” and “welfare queens.” That is, until something like a pandemic hits and they find themselves out of a job and accompanying health insurance benefits, and on their computers applying for food stamps. And then comes the rattling of their self-esteem, the jolt to their confidence, the jangling of nerves and the jarring clatter of a life falling apart. Who will they blame? It has to be someone’s fault! It must be those immigrants and these black people now running around looting and creating havoc. And so the rumbling continues, with racism destabilizing everyone on its path.
Just to be clear, it’s not America or Americans I’m talking about here. It’s racist Americans. Americans are the first to open their hearts and wallets to disaster zones like Haiti’s after the earthquake. And American companies are stepping up to address the “newly revealed” issue. Just a few days ago The New York Times published an article about a number of companies that have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars and created programs to give grants and assistance to minority-owned businesses that would otherwise be denied access to bank loans easily approved for white people. Those companies include Softbank, Paypal, Youtube and others. I got very excited. Hey, I have an arts education program that needs funding! My friend Lauren’s small business got hit hard by Covid-19! I ran to my computer for the links to apply; except that each and every one of those companies were already overwhelmed by the number of applicants. We are no longer accepting applications. I was disappointed but I felt like Wow!
I just want to remind racist white people in this country that black people aren’t sitting around wishing for a better life. We are ready and raring to go! If only the earth would stop moving beneath our feet — and everyone else’s.
*Image courtesy Brittanica.com
The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI), was founded in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, California, USA. ACEI is a full-service company providing complete and integrated services in the areas of international education research, credential evaluation, and translation. ACEI’s Global Consulting Group®, offers expertise in the following specialties: Media and Branding, Global Pathways, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to interested institutions and organizations around the globe. www.acei-global.org