When President Donald Trump referred to some immigrants as “animals,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was quick to defend him. “If anyone wants to quibble about whether or not we should call those people animals, perhaps the quibble should be whether we call them something worse,“ Nielsen said.
Now, Nielsen is leaning into enforcing the “zero tolerance” policy of separating children from their families at the border.
Family separation has been portrayed as a “women’s issue” in the media, with all four living former first ladies opposing it. The administration has deployed Nielson, along with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to defend it. Both women appeared at a press briefing on Monday and performed that job with gusto.
Tempting though it is to assume that Nielsen and Sanders must, on some level, oppose this cruel policy, there’s no reason to believe they have more empathy by virtue of being women. In fact, it’s these kinds of assumptions about white women’s innocence and outsized empathy that have made them some of white supremacy’s most effective agents. To be sure, it is men like Trump, former DHS chief John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House adviser Stephen Miller who are the architects of this policy ― but it has been left to Nielsen to implement their inhumane plan and to defend it to the public.
White women like Nielsen (and Sanders) have always been part of making white supremacy seem more palatable and less like the brutal, repressive ideology it is. Historical examples abound, from white women who worked alongside male colonizers to the wives of slaveholders who punished the people their husbands owned, to the white women who packed the picnic lunches for and took the photos at the lynchings committed purportedly in their defense. White women have played active roles in advancing and protecting white supremacy.
Their counterparts today are women like Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, who are putting up the ideological lace curtains around the frame of Trump’s abhorrent policies. For the white women of the Trump administration, this is a global project. Following Ivanka Trump’s recent trip to Israel to celebrate the disastrous move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Nielsen visited the state so she could get inspiration for her border wall.
Nielsen took on the job as DHS Secretary with a resume that is generously described as thin. “In a normal Administration, there isn’t a chance in hell she would get nominated for anything above an undersecretary job,” one national security official told a reporter for The New Yorker.
But so far, she has served Trump loyally and has done her part to defend his systematic whitening of America. In January, she canceled the legal temporary protected status of 200,000 Salvadorans who had been in the U.S since 2001. Then, she issued a series of aggressive statements criticizing bipartisan immigration bills that appeared to be gaining support in the Senate. One of the statements from DHS said a bipartisan immigration bill “would effectively make the United States a Sanctuary Nation where ignoring the rule of law is encouraged.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that the statement was “poisonous.”
This week, she has defended the president and the policy of separating families. She’s also denied the policy exists or was created by this White House:
In any other administration, such a mind-numbing contradiction would be baffling. But here, it’s part of a larger propaganda strategy, and Nielsen’s throwing her shoulder into it.
She’s also been quick to mimic the president’s strategy of attacking facts ― and the press that reports them. Asked about the images of children abused and warehoused in cages, she called the coverage “hearsay stories” and denied there was any child abuse taking place in detention centers. “Claiming these children and their parents are mistreated is simply not true,” she said. In a speech to the National Sheriff’s Association the same day, she said, “These minors are well taken care of. Don’t believe the press.”
The minors are not well taken care of. This brutal form of institutionalized racism has traumatized children at the border. The American College of Physicians issued a statement strongly objecting to family separation, noting the kind of psychological and emotional distress it inflicts on the very young. “Childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences create negative health impacts that will last an individual’s entire lifespan. Separating a child from his or her parents triggers a level of stress consistent with trauma.” The damage that the administration is inflicting on these children lasts a lifetime.
Nielsen insists on calling these children “criminal aliens,” a dehumanizing phrase she used repeatedly in a speech to the National Sheriff’s Association. The double-barreled rhetoric of “criminal” and “alien” is meant to dehumanize the people attempting to cross the border, often fleeing horrific, genocidal conditions. Nielsen is resolute about enforcing the policy, which she mistakenly refers to as “the law.” “Illegal actions have and must have consequences,” she has said. “No more free passes, no more get-out-of-jail-free cards.” But seeking asylum at the border is not illegal, no matter how many times Nielsen ― or Trump ― say it is.
Meanwhile, as her father’s administration keeps ripping children away from their parents, White House adviser Ivanka Trump continues to post photos of herself embracing her children. She remains silent about her father’s vicious immigration policy. The list of white women willing to sacrifice their integrity for the rewards of Trumpism is long and extends beyond his immediate family, Nielsen and Sanders. KellyAnne Conway, Mercedes Schlapp, Kelly Sadler and Hope Hicks have each taken a turn on the Trump tilt-a-whirl.
Now, there are calls for Nielsen’s resignation from many quarters for lying about the family separation policy at the border. But the infraction is not the lie. The policy of family separation is a moral evil. It needlessly, cruelly and systematically injures the most vulnerable. It is a policy being enforced by a white woman and justified by a chorus of white women, all of whom provide a soft cover, like a velvet glove on the iron fist of fascism.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book, Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.