YesYou’ve probably seen a photograph haunting the internet this week: a white man on horseback – in uniform, cocked and sneering – grabs a black man without shoes by the collar of his T-shirt. The black man’s face wears a look of unmistakable horror. He struggles to stay upright while dearly clinging to a few bags of food in his hands. Between the men, a long rein from the horse’s bridle arches threateningly like a whip. The photograph was taken just a few days ago in Texas, but the painting looks like something from pre-war America.
The image is deeply moving, not only for what it represents but for the history it evokes. What is happening at the border right now is putting two of our founding national myths – that we are a land of the free and a nation of immigrants – under scrutiny. To put it plainly, we are not doing well under inspection.
First of all, the current situation. This now iconic photo of photojournalist Paul Ratje was taken at a makeshift camp that arose on the US-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas. Over the past two weeks, thousands of people, mostly Haitians, have crossed from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to the United States in search of asylum. It is important to note that they did not come illegally; it is perfectly legal to arrive at a border entry point and seek asylum. But conditions in the camp, according to reports, have turned foul and almost unbearable, forcing asylum seekers to cross the river on foot to purchase food and supplies from the Mexican side.
Then the men on horseback arrived.
In video broadcast by Al Jazeera, border patrol officers on horseback can clearly be seen threatening, insulting and even whipping asylum seekers with the reins of their horses, shouting for them to stay in Mexico. The images, which sparked justified outrage, quickly spread – as did the agents’ right-wing defenses. Fox News, for example, was quick to point out that border patrol officers do not receive a whip with their equipment. But you don’t have to believe in alchemy to see that when a horse’s rein serves as a whip, it becomes a whip.
Chains, whips, horses, bloodhounds, irons: these were some of the tools used during New World slavery to preserve white hegemony. Most Americans know this, and I hope no one wants to revert to such brutality. Every part of this miserable system was degrading. It was demeaning to the slaves, obviously, and even, I would say, to the slave owners, who surely lost more of their humanity every day that this monstrous system survived.
In fact, New World slavery was not just degrading. It was collective madness, often involving animals. the slavers and slave hunters – yes, it was a real profession – trained dogs to attack blacks, and then deliberately interpreter the attacks as proof that even the dogs recognized the inferiority of blacks.
What about these slave hunters? After Mexico officially abolished slavery in 1829, American slave hunters routinely entered Mexico – without permission, it must be said – in search of escaped slaves from the United States. In 1858, the Texas legislature even pass a law offering anyone returning a slave “who could have escaped beyond the limits of the slave territory of the United States” one-third of “the value of that slave”, with the public treasury paying the money. A notable increased kidnappings people of African descent in Mexico followed. Needless to say, Mexico was not happy.
History therefore easily illustrates the border hypocrisy of the United States. Yet the most important point is that every national border has always been a place that offers those who pass through one of two options: sanctuary or terror. The images emerging from Del Rio, explicitly recalling the collective shame of our past, clearly point in the wrong direction. This could explain why the White House, which has executive authority over the border patrol, has rushed to condemn the footage.
Asked about the footage, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki replied, “I don’t think anyone seeing these footage would think it was acceptable or appropriate.” Vice President Kamala Harris said, “Human beings should never be treated this way. The Department of Homeland Security has promised an investigation with “appropriate disciplinary action.”
But is it just an image control? At the same time as it condemns the actions of its own law enforcement agency, the Biden administration has media access denied at Camp Del Rio, invoked a Trump-era ordinance (the rarely used public health law known as Title 42) to deport asylum seekers without examination, and forcibly deported hundreds of Haitians in Texas – many of whom left the country more than a decade ago, after the 2010 earthquake – return to a country that is not only reeling from a massive earthquake last August , but also of a political earthquake, the assassination of its president, last July.
Without examination, it is impossible to know who faced real threats of persecution upon their return to Haiti. United Nations spokesperson for human rights, Marta Hurtado, noted that the UN “is gravely concerned that there appears to have been no individual assessment of the cases.” Why does the Biden administration not share his concern?
One has to wonder if the same policies expelling Haitians from the United States today would be in effect if those arriving at the border were Europeans or even Cubans. If history is a guide – for decades, the United States has favored Cubans over Haitians and other Caribbean peoples when it comes to immigration – the answer is no.
It is one thing for the Biden administration to condemn abuses committed by its own government that hark back to the worst moments in our national history. But it is another to do so while maintaining the policies that allow these abuses. It’s not just cynical. It is despicable.