Weekend Read: Calling people 'animals' is dangerous — and we've seen it before

President Trump said at a conference on sanctuary cities this week: “These are not people. These are animals.”

His insinuation that immigration status or criminal record somehow determines humanity is not only appalling — it’s dangerous.

We’ve heard this dehumanizing rhetoric before.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis called Jews Untermenschen — subhumans. Before the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called “cockroaches.” And just recently in our own country, we learned that extremists behind a bomb plot to kill Somali Muslims called their intended victims “cockroaches.”

Dehumanizing rhetoric — unacceptable from anyone — is especially dangerous when it comes from the mouth of the president.

It’s also troubling that five days before Trump’s “animals” comment, his chief of staff, John Kelly, told an interviewer that undocumented immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” Despite Kelly offering caveats to present his comments as not painting all immigrants as bad people, his statement about assimilation echoes the kind of rhetoric many would like to think we left in the past.

His words recall Georgia Gov. Clifford Walker’s declaration in 1924 that he “would build a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of a democracy in their lives.”

Walker, who was speaking at a Ku Klux Klan rally, according to CNN, made those comments 10 years after a eugenicist, Edward Alsworth Ross, had written something similar:

Observe immigrants … You are struck by the fact that from ten to twenty per cent, are hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality. Not that they suggest evil. They simply look out of place in black clothes and stiff collar, since clearly they belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age.

It is chilling that the White House chief of staff’s statement evokes words spoken at a Klan rally and written by a eugenicist. It’s truly frightening, however, when the administration’s rhetoric is paired with a policy to separate immigrant children from their parents and put them in military bases or “in foster care or whatever.”

Or when the administration’s rhetoric is paired with the presidential pardon of an Arizona sheriff found guilty of ignoring a judge’s order telling him to stop violating the civil liberties of Latinos.

Or when it’s paired with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement that holds American citizens in detention centers, destroys water supplies left for migrants in the desert and knowingly deports people to their death.

Words matter.

Tell the president to stop using racist and dehumanizing language by adding your name to our petition.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Read is a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive the Weekend Read every Saturday morning.