In 1885, a poor, uneducated 16-year-old boy arrived in our country from Germany at a time when immigrants were often looked down on by affluent Americans.
This boy was ambitious and entrepreneurial, and, despite language problems, he earned some money and then traveled up to the Klondike during the gold rush to operate a hotel that became notorious for prostitution. He prospered, and today his grandson is President Donald Trump.
After Germany became an enemy in World War I, the Trump family was embarrassed enough about its heritage that it claimed to be from Sweden instead. President Trump himself repeated this lie in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.”
Yet Trump hypocritically joined the modern Know-Nothings by reportedly railing against immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and those in Africa. He favored admitting white people over black people — which is just the latest incident in a four-decade record of his racial epithets and discrimination.
We should be careful about tossing around the word “racist,” and any one incident can be misconstrued. But in Trump’s case, we have a consistent, 40-year pattern of insults and discrimination, and I don’t see what else we can call him but a racist.
The toxic disparagement of immigrants tarnishes heroes like Emmanuel Mensah, 28, a New Yorker who came from the West African country of Ghana and joined the Army National Guard.
Then a couple of weeks ago, when he was back from training, a fire broke out in Mensah’s Bronx building. Mensah easily saved himself, but then rushed back into the burning building to rescue others. Three times he rushed in and out, bringing out four people.
Then Mensah dashed toward the flames again and reached the fourth floor in a desperate effort to save a fifth person. This brave soul from what Trump would describe as an s-hole country, the kind of person Trump was insulting, never made it out. Mensah’s body was found high in the building’s wreckage.
A few days ago, the Army posthumously awarded Mensah the Soldier’s Medal, its highest award for heroism outside of combat, and New York state awarded him its Medal for Valor.
Who better embodies our nation’s values? A politician with a history of racist comments who took five deferments to escape military duty in the Vietnam War, including one for heel spurs? Or a heroic Ghanaian immigrant and soldier who dies in a fire while rescuing others?
Most of us recognize that immigration is complex and that we cannot throw open our borders, but also that newcomers enrich us. .
So what can we do?
Obviously, we need to stand up to racist xenophobia even when it emanates from the White House — particularly when it emanates from the White House — and in addition, if Americans are looking for a constructive way to respond, here’s a suggestion: Donate to an immigrant rights organization like the National Immigration Law Center, or to an aid group that works with people whom our president just insulted.
I’ve seen firsthand and admired the work of two U.S. aid organizations that save lives in Haiti from tuberculosis, cervical cancer and more. They are Partners in Health and Innovating Health International. Both are working heroically on the front lines to save the lives of ordinary Haitians, particularly women.
It seems to me that a fine, practical response to racism is to help save a life.
Writes for The New York Times.