How Trump used a centuries-old racist trope to attack Baltimore

This weekend, President Donald Trump attacked Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings by arguing that his district — which includes parts of Baltimore — was “disgusting” and a “rat and rodent infested mess.” He was then criticized for once again targeting a lawmaker of color with racist remarks.

The attacks on Cummings, who has been a vocal critic of how Trump discusses race and has also opposed the administration through his role chairing House Oversight Committee, come as the Maryland Congress member has condemned the Trump administration’s use of child detention at the US-Mexico border.

But in going after Cummings, Trump has shifted attention away from a policy issue that the president has the power to control and onto his repeated use of racist attacks against Democrats of color, a group that includes not just Cummings, but also Reps. Maxine Waters, John Lewis, and Frederica Wilson, among others. Earlier this month, Trump argued that four first-term congresswomen of color, all US citizens, should “go back” to other countries.

Attacks on lawmakers aside, Trump’s Baltimore remarks also fit into a longer history of racism from the president, whose attacks on African Americans and other people of color date back to when he first faced allegations of housing discrimination in the 1970s. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly asked black people “What the hell do you have to lose” by voting for him, regularly painting black communities as universally besieged by crime, poverty, and violence, as he made his pitch.

Those attempts were criticized for trafficking in racist tropes about black communities, a criticism that has reemerged with his latest attacks. In specifically invoking the image of predominantly black areas as “disgusting, rodent and rat infested” places where “no human being would want to live” Trump is using stereotypes of black communities that have existed for generations. And these stereotypes have long been used to amplify white Americans’ worst beliefs about black people and the communities and neighborhoods they live in.

The stereotype of “dirty” black places dates back to slavery

The recent tweets from the president fit into a broader way that Trump often talks about predominantly black cities and neighborhoods, framing these areas as consistently impoverished areas struggling with the highest rates of violence in the world (even when they aren’t even that violent compared to other cities). But it was his claim that Cummings’s Baltimore district is “rat-infested” that got a lot of early attention over the weekend. And it’s not hard to see why: that claim in particular fits into centuries-old stereotypes of black places — and people — as being dirty and unhygienic.

It’s a stereotype that dates back to slavery and the Civil War, when concerns about infectious disease gave fuel to racist arguments that African Americans were more likely to be carriers of disease. And the concept gained even more traction as whites looked to justify the adoption of segregation under Jim Crow laws. “The rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not white dirty,” Carl Zimring, a historian at the Pratt Institute and author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, wrote in 2017.

Zimring notes that by the 1890s, this conflation had become so embedded in popular culture that ads for soap companies not only included caricatures of African Americans, they openly associated cleanliness with whiteness, with some companies using ads that would “explicitly racialize dirt”:

Several soap companies in the 1890s conflated the words “clean” and “white.” Proctor & Gamble’s marketing of Ivory Soap boasted of it being 99 44/100 percent pure white soap, and long into the twentieth century, its advertisements consistently emphasized the white color and its almost absolute purity: The sallowness of “smoky city” complexions, the advertisements maintained, “usually results not from ill health, or bad blood, but from dirt and can only be dispelled by the regular application of a pure soap,” and Ivory “has no equal, on account of its absolute purity.” It was so pure that it claimed to remove tan and freckles. Lautz Brothers and Pearline showed images of adults literally washing African-American children white.

This idea — that race was a primary determinant of cleanliness — was central to many beliefs about the inferiority of black Americans. It was also closely connected to other stereotypes. Zimring notes that the use of these sorts of tropes were often used to justify policies that relegated African Americans to poor, overcrowded neighborhoods with limited resources — communities that were then decried as dirty, filthy and, yes, “rat-infested.”

The images “proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty,” Zimring writes. “It is a dehumanizing trope meant to subjugate peoples who threatened white supremacy.”

These beliefs played a role in sustaining systematic discrimination against blacks in access to housing, sanitation, and other resources. They have more recently been tied to environmental racism, the idea that structural racism contributes to environmental issues disproportionately affecting poor communities of color. Research from the EPA has found that black and Latino communities deal with far more pollution than whites, despite these groups creating less pollution than their white counterparts.

Stereotypes of black spaces can have negative effects on black communities

Research from University of California at Santa Cruz professor Courtney Bonam suggests that a related issue is that the general public doesn’t just stereotype black people but also holds stereotypes about what constitutes a predominantly black space.

In one study from 2016, Bonam and other researchers found that when people are asked to imagine a white family living in a middle class suburban neighborhood and then think of a black family living in the exact same house and neighborhood, respondents assume that the black family lives in a more impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood than the white one. In a related study, respondents were more willing to place a potentially harmful chemical plant in a predominantly black neighborhood than a predominantly white one. This happened even when a respondent didn’t report high levels of anti-black animus.

Bonam says that in effect this means that “stereotyping a Black area as blighted leads people to disconnect from it, which in turn influences how they judge it.” In other words, thinking black spaces are hotbeds of crime, violence, and poverty can lead a person to see predominantly black communities as wholly distinct from predominately white ones. They care less about what happens to these communities as a result.

This is all helpful for understanding why Trump’s attacks on Baltimore have been so sharply criticized. But it also helps to show why Trump used this argument in the first place. The president’s use of stereotypes when speaking about black communities and communities of color — attacks that he doesn’t use on poor white communities affected by the opioid crisis, or predominantly white regions struggling economically — have been well-documented, with places like Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, and Ferguson being presented as uniquely violent and dangerous, and therefore unworthy of Trump’s support or protection.

Predominantly white communities are treated as a part of America that the government needs to help and uplift, but communities of color are often viewed as completely different environments, places where no “human” would dare to live. This, of course, happens despite the fact that both communities live in the United States, and despite the fact that there are plenty of other places — like the White House — that deal with some of the problems so quickly criticized in Baltimore.

These arguments are what Baltimore residents called attention to on Monday, as Trump’s supporters and conservative news outlets countered that the president’s tweets weren’t actually racist, but were instead rooted in fact.

But knowing that Baltimore has high crime rates does little to absolve the president of his remarks — instead they raise the question of why he is so willing to attack a city that is struggling, a city that needs assistance that his government could play a role in providing. And it offers further evidence of how the president’s worldview can have serious consequences for communities of color who must not only deal with inequities rooted in history, but are also forced to grapple with the open scorn of the very government meant to help them.