Afro-Dominican poet Blas Jiménez once said, “Now we are Dominican, because we are not Haitian. We are something, because we are not that.” That statement perfectly captures the tension and uproar that has followed the Dominican court ruling that retroactively and arbitrarily stripped citizenship from an estimated 200,000-300,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in the country since 1929 and labeled these people as being “in transit,” despite the fact that few people spend 84 years and 4 generations “in transit” in the same country—imagine the profound social upheaval that would ensue if the United States retroactively revoked citizenship from all Irish-Americans in the U.S. since 1929. The impact on the lives of these people suddenly made stateless are profound- access to public education, voting rights, healthcare, and even birth certificates and ID cards in the DR are all reserved for citizens alone.

To understand the conflict between Haiti and the DR that has led up to this court ruling, one must understand how cultural identity, history, and nationalism have developed on either side of the island. Take the example of the events of 1821: By Haitian historical accounts, after the successful slave rebellion in Haiti, the Haitians sought to secure the entire island from the threat of European invasion and the reestablishment of slavery. President Jean Pierre Boyer invaded the Dominican Republic, captured the capital from the Spanish, unified the island and emancipated the Dominican slaves. In Dominican accounts, Haiti was an unwanted occupier that quelled their own push for independence, infringed on their sovereignty, and subjected them to 22 years of brutal occupation. The Dominican Republic celebrates its independence not from colonial Spain, but from Haiti each year with fiery speeches from politicians rooted in xenophobic antihaitianismo.

The two countries have established separate identities grounded in their experiences with colonialism. “…No other group is like the Haitians which arrived [in the DR] with the cultural baggage of a history of black pride in a country that chose to identify with the European elite,” historian Edward Paulino noted to the New York Times. While Haiti so ascribes to black nationalism that even the Haitian constitution declares all its citizens black, the Dominican Republic, in contrast, has tried to distance itself from its African roots. In the DR, to be black is to be Haitian, and to be called black is tantamount to a slur. 

Historically and even presently in the DR, there are reasons to avoid being associated with blackness. In a move to whiten the country, the Dominican Republic of the 1930s aggressively encouraged European migration on one hand while discriminating against Haitian immigrants on the other. The brutality of the 1937 Parsley Massacre, the ethnic cleansing of Haitians and those who “looked Haitian” in the DR during the Trujillo regime, helped institutionalized the term “indio” as a national racial category, yet another step towards both literal and historical whitewashing of the African roots of the country.

To avoid racial discrimination, dark-skinned Dominicans with obvious African heritage suddenly became the descendants of the long-exterminated Amerindians—Indian, burned Indian, dirty Indian, washed Indian, dark Indian, cinnamon, moreno or mulatto—anything but Black. All the while, the White elite in Santo Domingo still control most of the countries wealth and maintain full control of its social and political structure. The richer a Dominican is, the whiter he can claim to be with the sudden recollection of a real or fictitious European ancestor. Thus, when a law that discriminates against Haitian-Dominicans and retroactively strips them of citizenship passes, one must question who in society is threatened the most by the “blackening” of the DR and benefits the most from social strife.

According to an op-ed by Lorgia García-Peña, there are some indications that the ruling is a way for the government to distract the public from growing domestic problems like taxes, unemployment and austerity measures. With that in mind, these narratives that establish imagined differences between people on the exact same island only serve to foment division and prevent poor Dominicans (40% of the population) and poor Haitians from uniting against the ruling elites’ move to consolidate its power and wealth while the poor fight over crumbs.

It is unconscionable to purposely create four generations of stateless people, but it is even more so inhumane for Dominicans in the DR to stand idly by and assume that this is a Haitian problem. If such a gross violation of human rights goes unchecked in the DR, what would stop the elites in power from next declaring that “indios” can no longer vote? What would stop the government from undertaking another pogrom similar to Trujillo’s to forcibly whiten the country if legal methods prove to slow?

The real threat to Dominican society is not Haitians, it’s that the country could once again be led  by its elites to commit unspeakable crimes against humanity all in an attempt to quell its own African roots.

France Francois is the award-winning blogger behind the Black in Cairo blog. Follow her on Twitter at @FranceF3