Proof of America’s inhumanity…on a coin…for sale

OPINION: A challenge coin depicting a U.S. Border Patrol agent chasing a Haitian immigrant looks like an image from slavery and reflects the behavior and cruelty some Americans find acceptable.

A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas on September 19, 2021. (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Somehow, some Americans believe that it’s OK to be inhumane to undocumented immigrants. That it’s acceptable to be cruel toward immigrants, especially those from countries below our southern border. They feel comfortable putting them in cages, separating them from their young children, and even hunting them after they cross the border

One of the clearest examples of this is a  2021 photo of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent on a horse, with a long rein dangling as if it were a whip, leaning toward a Haitian immigrant who’s holding a plastic bag of food. The photo was frighteningly reminiscent of slavery. It made the Border Patrol look inhumane and cruel. But to some people it’s OK to be mean to immigrants. So, perhaps they saw the photo as reminiscent of slavery and maybe deep down they sort of miss slavery. 

Now we learn that a man in Utah is selling an unofficial challenge coin with that image emblazoned on it — an officer on a horse with a cord eerily similar to a whip, leaning in toward a Haitian man running in fear. The seller, Andy Christiansen, is celebrating that image and patting agents on the back for being cruel to immigrants. 

This is disgusting but not far removed from white people using photos from lynchings as postcards. They’re images of terrorism and being circulated helps underline who’s really in charge in this country. Part of American whiteness is white people being violent toward other races to maintain their place in the racial pecking order. This image is being celebrated because it reminds us who’s in control and who they are controlling.

A challenge coin is something that many military or law enforcement groups use to signify either membership in a particular group or to reward high achievement within the group. There’s often a very boyish aspect to challenge coins. If you’re in a bar and you pull out your coin, then everyone in the bar who’s in the group must show theirs. You’re supposed to keep it on you all the time.

If one person doesn’t have his coin then he has to buy drinks for everyone else in the group.  But if everyone has their coin, then the first person who displayed one has to buy drinks for everyone. It’s frat boy stuff. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with challenge coins. They’re ultimately about bonding and belonging and being able to prove you’re in a group that takes courage to get into. But this Border Patrol coin says the people who are supposed to protect us are OK with treating humans horrifically, and they will even cheer each other on for doing so.

After the photo went viral back in September, President Biden declared that there would be an investigation. “I promise you, those people will pay,” he said. But now those people are celebrating what happened. They’re lauding their own cruel behavior. Don’t poor people from poor countries deserve respect and dignity, too? Don’t people from Haiti in particular deserve better? Why do I say people from Haiti specifically deserve better? Well, it’s because white people in America and France created the conditions Haitians are trying to flee. Facts. Let’s take a quick look at Haitian history.

Some people think people in poor countries are poor because they’re dumb and corrupt.  But if you look into geopolitical history, often the reason poor countries are poor is because one or several global powers destabilized them or plundered them or destroyed their attempts to build a democracy. For example, Haiti is the only country that had a successful slave rebellion. In the 1890s the enslaved people of that island, led by Toussaint L’ouverture, rose up and overthrew their slave masters and either killed them or sent them back to France, where many had come from.

But, in retaliation, France demanded that Haiti pay reparations to the slave masters who lost property. Yes, France forced Haitians to repay their masters because they had been supposedly robbed when enslaved people took their freedom. Surreal. Haiti had to pay France the modern equivalent of $560 million, a payout that stretched over a few centuries and helped keep Haiti poor. An amazing recent New York Times story went into depth on all this. This quote from the Times leapt out at me: “If that money [$560 million] had simply stayed in the Haitian economy and grown at the nation’s actual pace over the last two centuries — rather than being shipped off to France, without any goods or services being provided in return — it would have added a staggering $21 billion to Haiti over time.” 

Haiti was also oppressed by America, a country that was afraid that the Haitian Revolution would lead to an American slave rebellion. We couldn’t have that, so we crushed Haiti. That same New York Times report says, “After 1915, when the Americans replaced the French as the dominant force in Haiti, they did more than just control the country’s national bank: They installed a puppet government, dissolved parliament at gunpoint, entrenched segregation, forced Haitians to build roads for no pay, killed protesters and rewrote the nation’s Constitution, enabling foreigners to own property for the first time since independence.” America’s military occupation of Haiti lasted 19 years. 

These facts are critical to why Haiti has been so poor for so long. France and America took advantage of Haiti’s global weakness and forcibly sucked away its resources, making life inside the Haitian economy very hard. So, when poor Haitians run from Haiti they are following a road that was paved long ago by France and America. They never had a chance because the superpowers were punishing them for having overturned the slave economy of their nation. Americans love to blame people for being poor as if it’s proof of their own incompetence, but Haitian poverty is a direct result of the country being robbed by France and America. 

We owe all people more dignity than we displayed in that photo. We as a superpower must  be a better nation than that. But in so much of America they are cruel because the cruelty is the point. People who come here in search of a better life should not be treated like animals. Most of them look up to America. A central part of modern right-wing ideology is fear and loathing toward immigrants, and those emotions justify the evil treatment of them. But when they’re poor because of our geopolitical bullying, we owe more to the people who come searching for asylum. They’re not evil, and they shouldn’t be treated as if they are.


Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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