American Shithole: Queens Gets a Bad Rap

Diversity and gender: All in the Family.

It isn’t the centre of capital and culture like Manhattan, doesn’t have the cool factor of Brooklyn, doesn’t have the fabled gritty tales of the past like the Bronx. Maybe Staten Island has it worse. But who cares about that place.

It’s symbol for so long had been Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot of Queens in the sitcom All In the Family. Just across the East River from Manhattan, his old-world ways stood comically athwart the progress of diversity and inclusion. We could laugh at his antics because America, having ended Jim Crow and become more inclusive to non-European immigrants after 1965, was changing for the better. Bunker’s white wise cracks could be taken as the death agony of bygone era. Look at places in Queens now, like Astoria (often thought to be the show’s inspiration) and it would seem true: no longer could it be a place for someone like Bunker. Walk through its streets and you pass Greek next to Filipino next to Egyptian. The borough on the whole, thought to be New York’s whiter, more conservative borough, is home to 100 languages.

Yet, where is Archie Bunker now? In the White House. With President Donald Trump spewing the word “shithole” to describe non-white immigrants’ home countries like Haiti, liberals stand, once again, shocked by his unrestrained hatred. Trump, who was swept into power with votes from the Rust Belt and the South, embodies perfectly the transition of Bunker’s Queens to what it is today. Trump, born into his father’s real estate wealth, grew up in the Queens neighbourhood of Jamaica Estates—a well-to-do enclave that could be easily mistaken for any other clean American suburb. You’d hardly know Trump grew up next to Hollis, one of American hip-hop’s New York capitals.

It is extremely easy to be horrified by Trump’s comments. Worse than using the “s-word,” by invoking Norway as an ideal place to take in immigrants from, he displayed what seemed to be an unabashed love for northern Europeans over everyone else, a key element of dangerous white supremacism. At first glance, it might appear contradictory that a son of New York City, the most diverse city in America, literally home to the United Nations, where capital and high culture unite foreigners, become such an unworldly rube.

But how many Donald Trumps do we know? How many times have any one of us—no matter how liberal, well-traveled, educated we think of ourselves—heard someone speak this way about a poorer nation and the people the United States takes in? “Hey, disrespect, but I’ve seen how those people live on the news!” “They come over here but don’t want to assimilate.” Trump’s statement might seem extreme in the Oval Office, but play it again in your head between two bankers on the golf course. Or between finance bros in a midtown bar on a Friday night. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so abnormal.

For the most part, we learn to tolerate these people in our lives. Many see their racist uncle at Thanksgiving. He spews some nonsense about Muslims. But you know you have to be polite. So you just pass the sweet potatoes, nod your head and tell yourself that if you just ignore him the rhetoric will stay put in his dying little world. But that racist uncle is now the most powerful man in the world, with nuclear launch codes and the global economic order at his command.

Archie Bunker didn’t die. He was just resting. His reaction to the influx of non-European immigration, school desegregation and inclusion of gays was just tucked away for a while. The restless unease about change over the decades has been intertwined with a false ideology of superiority. Of course, the United States is a safe haven for immigrants fleeing war and poverty. But Trump, and the 30 to 40 percent of Americans who consistently stand by him in opinion polls, mistake America as a shining example of a country, while Puerto Rico has yet to recover from Hurricane Maria, while California suffers a multitude of environmental disasters, while Baltimore schools are without heat.

We could list over and over again America’s social and economic deficiencies as compared to other industrialised nations. But it would fall on deaf ears, because the entire ideology Trump has built rests on the myth that any problems with America are not of America’s doing but precisely because we became more open, because we let them in, we let them go to our schools, and so on.

It’s important to recognise this, since while Trump’s statement about “shitholes” seems unfit for a president, it really is a large part of what this nation is, not just in “red state” America but in our most cosmopolitan cities.

Sure, maybe this will all pass with time. But this dangerous ideology will always play a part in the American political fabric. We can’t assume that it’s buried in the past. Because when we do that, things like Trump’s election happen. And then it doesn’t seem so abnormal.

Screenshot courtesy of CBS. All rights reserved.