Whether Donald Trump meant his “they’re like animals” remark to refer to all immigrants or merely to members of the MS-13 gang, everyone understood his intent: To say that a group of human beings of a certain ethnicity are less human than we full-blooded Americans, and perhaps not even human beings at all. In this sense, even if Trump really only meant MS-13 gangbangers, MS-13 served Trump as a synecdoche, which is a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole. Just as we understand that “a strong arm” or a “piece of ass” refers to an entire body, so do we realize that Trump was saying that all immigrants from Latino (and African and Islamic) countries are animals.
The essence of racism involves the belief that certain human beings are better than others—by virtue of their skin color, DNA, family history or whatever factor is being used to distinguish individuals by race. In the West at least, humans have traditionally considered animals to be lesser forms of life put on earth for the benefit and use of human beings. To call someone an animal is virtually always used in a pejorative sense, except when referring to football players or boxers, and even in the sporting context, our admiration for an animal is for her/his less than human qualities.
To call a group of people animals is always racist.
Of course, most Americans nowadays would be appalled if we treated animals, especially dogs, how we treat immigrants and refugees. Far more was made in the news media of Michael Vick killing dogs he trained to fight than in the separation of families by the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Without a doubt, America loves its pets more than we love the human beings whom we have defined as “others.” In the mass media and advertising and in our streets and living rooms, we see dogs pampered and treated as members of the family, referred to as children, given holiday gifts, preferred over human beings for companionship. The composite message we should infer regarding the totality of television advertising for food and what are called food products is that human beings give their pets a healthier, more nutritionally balanced diet than they themselves eat.
Thus many, if not most, of the people who embrace Trump’s demotion of groups of human beings to animal status routinely elevate animals to the status of “human beings.”
Defining people as less than human makes it easier to treat them badly. It used to justify slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws. Today, it justifies an ungenerous, mean-spirited immigration policy—to use violence when dealing with them, to turn them away even though they are suffering refugees, to split families, to send people well-established in this country to the countries of their parents.
Trump’s animal comment is one set piece in a large campaign he and his allied are waging to divide America into “us-and-them” armed camps, with ”them” defined by color and ethnic background. Another theme in this long-term propaganda war is Trump’s constant labelling of behavior by blacks, Hispanics and Muslims as horrific while condoning or remaining silent about similar white behavior. The most obvious example of the Trumpite double standard is Trumpty-Dumpty’s reaction to mass murders involving whites versus people of color. When whites go postal, mental illness is to blame; anyone of color and it’s terrorism.
Contrast, too, Trump’s comments about “the good people” marching with the Nazis in Charlottesville versus his condemnation of Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before sporting events.
Which brings us to the unfortunate decision of the National Football League (NFL) to fine players and their teams when the player genuflects during the anthem. Like Trump and his minions, NFL owners have decided that taking the knee is inherently unpatriotic and thus antisocial, even if the players are asserting a right that defines Americans to protest a flaw in the American way of life that supposedly makes the United States a superior place to live—the unfair treatment of African-Americans and other minorities by the criminal justice system. The NFL owners put themselves on the side of Trump and his minions, which is why Trump is praising the announcement.
In attempting to explain why NFL owners didn’t decide to affirm the right of all Americans to engage in peaceful protests by doing nothing, we face another set of bad options, caught between a symbolic Scylla and Charybdis with no ship to navigate us safely between the two: Either pressure from rightwing politicians and the large numbers of NFL fans who are racist or Trumpite has coerced a craven NFL to submit to their un-American, and covertly racist, agenda OR the NFL owners sincerely believe that saluting the flag is more important than a basic civil right.
Or maybe they just like the idea of controlling the players, like a sheep herder controls the flock.
Let’s keep in mind that the NFL, more than any other professional sport, has maintained the plantation owner attitude towards players that all sports used to have before the days of free agency. No other league is as preoccupied with its public image as the NFL, and the owners insist on that image being corporate, conservative and dedicated to the values of small-town white America. No other league has as many rules of behavior that have nothing to do with playing, e.g., the extensive regulations dictating proper behavior after scoring a touchdown. Now the NFL wants to take away the player’s right to free speech, or at least make them pay for the right through fines (which is in keeping with the essential rightwing idea that people with more property should have more of an influence on social policy, as if the NFL is saying, “If you want a say, you have to pay.”). The racial makeup of the NFL reinforces the plantation metaphor: The league is about 70% black, but there are few blacks in management and no black owner.
In organization and physical infrastructure, the old slave plantation had many similarities to contemporary immigration collection centers, Japanese internment camps during World War II and German concentration camps. Moreover, in all these instances of herding people into confined quarters and controlling their every movement, the people in charge openly expressed a superiority to those under their control. The evidence of that superiority was and is racial in nature and usually color-based.
Thus the NFL’s decision to try to prohibit political protest during the national anthem and Trump’s “worse than animals” remark are profoundly connected, not only as different arrows in Trump’s quiver of racism, but as manifestations of the continued persistence of the belief that whites of European decent are superior to others. Both Trump’s comments and the NFL action are highly calculated moves meant to exploit the virulent racism that still distorts American values.
During the last few centuries, science has undercut the notion that certain groups of humans are superior to others, or that all humans are superior to animals for that matter. Science’s inexorable refutation of revealed religion removed our inherent superiority to other creatures as much as its dismissal of inherent differences between the races has refuted racism. Moreover, over the past 40 years, anthropologists and paleontologists have found evidence of all kinds of behavior in animals that humans once cited to assert our superiority, including the development of language, use of tools, social organization and hierarchy, altruism, morality and even religion. The more we learn about the natural world and ourselves, the more like other animals we seem. Even as American whites wrongly believe that they are losing their status economically and socially to “others,” all humans are losing their status of uniqueness among the animal kingdom.
While respecting all life (except maybe rats and cockroaches), I still believe that humans are different. Other animals may use tools, but not to the degree we do. Other animals may communicate, but they haven’t built the widespread and sophisticated communications networks we have. And while altruism and morality exist among other animals, none have yet banded to together to protest the mistreatment of others. Your typical alpha male or alpha female among social animals doesn’t threaten its own existence by trying to raise awareness about how creatures in other groups suffer. And that’s what Kaepernick, the quarterback—the quintessential human alpha—did. In standing up for the civil and judicial rights of people of color, Kaepernick performed a uniquely human act. He could have defined himself as a privileged football player or a member of the economic elite, much as Trump and the NFL owners do, but instead he chose to identify with the downtrodden, and by implication, the entirety of humanity.
In a profound sense, then, those who protest and work for human, civil, judicial and economic rights are the most human among us. That’s certainly what Christ and the early Christians thought. They knelt before the concept of a god who helps the poor. Kaepernick knelt before the secular concepts of equality, equity and human solidarity. Either way, they elevated themselves—made themselves more human and less like animals—through the devotional act of kneeling. Perhaps when considering definitions of human beings, we should simply say, “animals who kneel.”
My hope is that the NFL edict will incite more football players and other professional athletes to become “animals who kneel.” I would like to see entire teams either stay inside the locker room for the national anthem or all take a knee in unison. I would like to see fans stay seated during the national anthem to protest this new restriction on civil rights. I would like to see a class action lawsuit by the players that upends this obnoxious new regulation. In short, I would like to see Americans collectively tell Trump and the NFL owners that we are not animals, but human beings.