What we say about the people who come to the United States from other countries matters. How we talk about immigrants impacts how people look at America and how Americans look at other people. Our rhetoric influences how immigrants think of themselves and their place in this country.
That is why the alleged remarks at a recent White House meeting which characterized some immigrants as coming from “s—–hole countries” are so hurtful. Why would any American leader disparage people from the nation of Haiti or any of the African nations? If those remarks were made (since they have been challenged by the White House), they are beneath the dignity of the office of the most powerful elected leader in the free world.
In my new book, The New ‘PC’: Practical Consideration, I assert that America needs to stop concerning itself with political correctness and instead focus on practical consideration. Practical consideration involves being considerate of others and the planet. It’s not about a political ideology; it’s about being aware of those around us so that we can build relationships and solve problems together. With regards to how we talk about immigrants, we don’t need to build up who we are as Americans by belittling other countries (or people) – especially those countries or people that may not be as fortunate or free as the United States or certain groups of its citizens.
Americans often look to their president to provide moral authority and leadership. That was certainly the case when I worked in the White House for George W. Bush. But this “shithole” statement, although alleged, undermines the ability of a president to exercise the kind of moral authority and leadership that Americans have come to expect from their chief executive.
Some may argue that slurs don’t really matter that much because they are only words. But words matter. Words, used thoughtfully, can be helpful and uplifting. Words used in haste, without much thought or care, can undermine relationships and political causes. In this case, a poor choice of words can negatively impact foreign relations with countries whose citizens are people of color, as seen in Ghana’s response. The United States may still give the same amount of money to nations populated by people of color. But certainly this event and others like it impact how other countries might view this country moving forward.
Nearly everyone in the United States either comes from somewhere else – another country – or their parents or grandparents or great grandparents hailed from another country. That is certainly the case with my family. Someone doesn’t have to be politically correct to note this fact or be sensitive to it. They just have to be aware of our country’s history and the backgrounds of the people around them.
On a policy level, practical consideration should also play a role. Basing American immigration policy solely on “skills” misses a crucial aspect of America: that anyone, regardless of their background, can become an American. Isn’t any immigrant who wants to come here, who wants to be an American citizen and pledge allegiance to our flag, worthy of the opportunity for citizenship without regard to race or color or ethnicity or financial hardship? If our immigration policy ever takes the unfortunate turn to regard some immigrants as more desirable because of their economic status or their ethnic or racial makeup, the United States of America may miss out on the next Colin Powell. The economic health, or lack thereof, of an immigrant’s country or the race of an immigrant doesn’t have anything to do with the contribution that that immigrant or their offspring might make once they get here.
It’d be easy to say that President Trump’s comments were politically incorrect. But more importantly, they weren’t practical or considerate. They undermined American relationships. They ignored our long history of integrating all immigrants. On an issue like immigration, where our leaders must make decisions on whole groups of people, our leaders need to be particularly aware that words are never just words.
Joe Watkins is a former White House aide to President George H W Bush, a political commentator, and the author of the new book The New ‘PC’ : Practical Consideration.