N.H.I. (No Humans Involved)

Once you begin to see another person as less than human, it becomes easier to treat them in inhumane ways.

In the 1990’s, after the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police, an African American scholar named Sylvia Wynter wrote an open letter to her white colleagues to explain the realities of black life in America. Her open letter explains that “a report by public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym N.H.I. to refer to any case involving the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of inner city ghettos. N.H.I. means ‘no humans involved.'” (p.42) Under the guise of a border crisis, President Trump and his administration routinely refer to the people coming across our southern border as “animals” or an “infestation”. Trump ushered in an American nativism which actively celebrates ignorance, heartlessness and cruelty.  His racist rhetoric gives our government agencies and their employees license to be cruel to men, women and children.

Many months ago, when I first heard the audio recording of a child being separated from her parents, I felt something break inside me. The feeling was devastating, but also familiar. At first, I thought it was connected to the time after Hurricane Katrina when we watched people stranded on rooftops begging someone, anyone to help. But that wasn’t it. I felt this way, when I watched the Twin Towers collapse on September 11th. I was witnessing something that was too horrendous to process. What kind of person could experience that cry in real time and follow through with his or her orders to separate that child? What kind of country do I live in where children can be separated from their parents over and over again, thousands of times? The kind of people are those who have been convinced that people who are coming to the U.S. are inferior and that cruelty will deter more people from arriving. And I live in a country where increasingly human value and dignity are only afforded to people who are wealthy and white.

In spite of all my awareness – because of my lived experience as an African American and as someone who has both studied and now teaches African American history – becoming aware of our government’s willingness to torture children has nearly broken my spirit. Children have been separated from their parents before and our country has abused black and brown people for centuries; however, there was something different about the glee and pride expressed by those in our government (most of whom have been terminated by Pres. Trump at this time), as they rolled out their policy. Later, I heard that many in the administration simply thought the American people wouldn’t care. They tried to pin the blame on the Obama Administration (and I get that they are not completely innocent); however, this new level of sadism has Pres. Trump written all over it. There was no plan to reunite these children with their parents, and no plan in place to house them. So, they incarcerated children, toddlers and babies. Baby jails. And, the administration tried and continues to try to hide the truth, and to move around and hide the children.

Children are dying, being abused, tortured, sexually assaulted and neglected. More will die. As lawmakers on both sides of the aisle try to work things out, people are tempted to demand better conditions for incarcerated children. The answer isn’t to make better jails for babies. The answer is not to incarcerate children at all. Don’t just keep families together. Keep families with children together OUTSIDE of prisons. Free these people so we can care for them after their long journey. I’m tired of feeling helpless, betrayed and angry. Aren’t you?

Thanks for listening.


[I hear you saying, but Gabrie’l, U.S. children in our country are being separated from their parents and being incarcerated (I know they are) then let’s use this moment to address those situations as well. Where are the spaces where we can build coalitions? Let’s build them!]

Wynter, S. (1994) “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” in Forum N.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century (http://carmenkynard.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/No-Humans-Involved-An-Open-Letter-to-My-Colleagues-by-SYLVIA-WYNTER.pdf accessed 7/19/19)

JR installed massive face of a child on Mexican side of US Border wall on September 2017. (Stolen from Google Images)

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