The Long Life of a Racist Smear

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Cleanliness is next to godliness, and in the imaginations of racists, it is also next to whiteness—the next best thing or maybe even the same thing. In its absence, so the racist lie goes, you will find everyone else: black people, brown people, immigrants of all shades, groups of marginalized people. Dirty. Filthy.

There too, Trump campaign advisor Jeff Ballabon found Representative Ilhan Omar. On Monday, Ballabon called Omar “filthy” during a Fox Business interview while accusing the progressive congresswoman of being an anti-Semite due to her criticisms of Israel and its right-wing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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This is by now an old smear, told again and again about the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, but the most recent iteration of the cycle started last week. The New York Times reports that during an event at a Washington, DC bookstore, Omar, responding to accusations of anti-Semitism, “questioned why it was acceptable for her to speak critically about the political influence of the National Rifle Association, fossil fuel industries, and ‘big pharma,’ but not the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.”

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Soon after, Fox Business host Stuart Varney invited Ballabon to comment on the matter, asking if there was room for both Omar and Jewish voters in the Democratic Party. Ballabon said there isn’t. “The problem is that her beliefs are deeply rooted in hatred and anti-Semitism,” Ballabon said. “She is a hater. I’m going to say it, she is filth.”

Varney noted that “filth” was a very strong word to use.

“Yes,” Ballabon agreed. “She is a filthy, disgusting hater. So what if she’s in Congress? That’s the problem.”

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Ballabon did not use such strong language when asked in 2017 about the neo-Nazis who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia in a fascist protest in 2017 that left one woman dead. Instead, he said they were simply “people who play dress up Nazi.” But of course, this isn’t really about anti-Semitism.

In the Fox Business segment, Varney gave Ballabon room to retract his statements given his position as a representative of the president, which is amusing considering his boss also employed the same racist tropes: Trump referred to African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries.” This kind of explicit racism is also baked into the vocabulary (and policy) of the administration as a whole: Trump’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017 decrying undocumented immigrants, and at the last minute omitted a line in his prepared remarks that read: “It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.” Invoking yet another racist trope about subhumans and invading hordes, the White House has referred to members of the MS-13 gang as “animals.” The same vocabulary is also familiar enough of Varney’s own network: In December, Tucker Carlson even wondered if immigration makes America dirtier.

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Epithets of uncleanliness have long been used to dehumanize nonwhite peoples and groups perceived, at a time, to fall outside of whiteness: In 1911, lynch mob organizer and future governor of Louisiana John Parker said that Italian immigrants were, “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”

And as Carl A. Zimring, author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, wrote for the Washington Post, these racist associations were injected into everything from soap advertisements at the turn of the 20th century to politics:

Racism conflating nonwhite immigrants with filth originated in that era — though then, unlike now, the population of immigrants considered “unclean” was more expansive, including Eastern and Southern Europeans, along with peoples originating from the Americas, Africa and Asia. Epithets like “greaser” and “sheenie” became common insults. These terms presupposed that Italians, Mexicans and Jews had greasier, oilier skin and hair, and that this condition was a biological fact and social problem.

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It’s impossible to divorce Ballabon’s use of the term “filth” from Omar’s blackness or her identity as an immigrant. In Ballabon’s frame, and the history he invokes, nonwhite people are not just dirty, but less than human.

The smear has also traveled beyond the conservative circles where it first cropped up. This week, House Democrats plan to vote on a resolution in response to Omar’s comments on Israel, a move similar to a resolution taken up over comments made by Iowa’s Steve King, an actual white nationalist. An opinion piece in the Washington Post took the false equivalency a step further, calling Omar the “Steve King of the Left.”

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These attacks serve two functions, both of which Omar has named clearly: They intend to shut down conversation about American foreign policy and the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, and to strip her of her personhood and credibility as a lawmaker. Omar has rightly refused to accept these as the terms under which she must speak. Earlier this week, she tweeted: “We must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds. I will do my best to live up to that. I hope my colleagues will join me in doing the same.” Whether they will or not remains an open question.

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About the author

Ashley Reese

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.