“Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning,” begins a tweet from President Donald Trump, sent Monday morning in defense of the executive order that resulted in legal travelers to the United States being detained in airports across the country, cut off from family members, deprived of access to counsel, and in at least one instance bullied into surrendering lawfully obtained green cards.
Only 109 people. Way less than 1 percent of travelers. A tiny minority. This focus on the small number of people affected has been echoed by many of the administration’s defenders, including White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer. As a line of defense, it’s clearly lacking, but it’s all the administration has to offer, because detaining law-abiding travelers, including elderly grandparents and 5-year-old children, is a clear and undeniable injustice. When something is unfair and indefensible, the last resort of scoundrels is to downplay the number of people who have been unjustly treated. It’s despicable and cowardly, and it contradicts basic American values.
Remember this, because there are other groups whose small numbers are repeatedly referenced to justify denying their basic rights. In particular, the relatively small percentage of transgender people in the U.S. is regularly used against the trans community in place of actual arguments against protecting their rights and dignity. Whether the question is “Are transgender people safe from targeted violence based on hate?” “Do transgender people face discrimination in housing and employment?” or “How can we prevent bullying and familial rejection of transgender youth?” the answer is always that we shouldn’t care because the number of transgender people is so small. It’s a neat trick, because it allows the speaker to avoid saying anything overtly hateful as well as sidestep the question of whether innocent people are being harmed.
Referencing the small numbers of people affected by a harmful policy or unjust practice is always a distraction, employed either to obscure the real reason the speaker objects to those affected or deflect attention away from the indefensible. It’s also completely irrelevant in a country where individual rights and representation of minority points of view are among the fundamental values enshrined in the Constitution. Whether one grandmother or 1 million grandmothers were handcuffed while attempting lawful entrance to the country, it was still wrong. Whether transgender people make up 0.3 percent or 30 percent of the population, we still deserve the same rights as everyone else—and the same goes for every minority group as well as every individual. The focus should not be on how large or small the numbers are, but on the basic values of fairness and equality that all Americans should share.
Of course, if the Trump administration has done anything, it has reminded us that America doesn’t always live up to our values of tolerance, inclusivity, and respect for the rights of individuals, regardless of their minority group membership. That’s why minority groups have always had to organize and agitate to demand the rights that should be ours without argument or struggle.
Being part of a tiny minority renders you vulnerable to abuses, which is why people who bear the brunt of such abuses have to hang together. Transgender people must band together with other groups to support the rights of Muslim travelers, and of black and brown people who unjustly face harsher penalties from law enforcement, and of poor rural communities that lack access to health care or transportation or a decent education, and of all others who face discrimination or injustice. We must reject the idea that there is some small amount of injustice that is beneath our consideration.