Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy, and its stark consequences are being played out for the entire world. As events have unfolded, the media has rightly presented the conflict as a human rights catastrophe that inspires a unified global solidarity. But many Black and brown activists and observers, myself included, are also expressing this solidarity – while critiquing the apparent double standard and racial bias evident in both media coverage of and social media response to images of largely White Ukrainians engaged in violent resistance against Russian forces.
Western coverage of the war has highlighted how scenes of death emanating from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine are made all the more horrifying because, “They seem just like us.” One CBS news segment went viral, primarily for all the wrong reasons, after the reporter opined that the “relatively civilized, relatively European” country of Ukraine was not where one expected to see such heartbreaking chaos.
That correspondent, Charlie D’Agata, issued an apology, saying, “I spoke in a way I regret, and for that I am sorry,” noting his words were an attempt to convey that Ukraine – unlike other countries – hadn’t seen “this scale of war” in recent years.
On the BBC, Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor described the scenes of carnage in starkly racialized terms, explaining that, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blond hair and blue eyes being killed.” A commentator on Al-Jazeera opined that the Ukranian refugees were not mere exiles from the Middle East or North Africa: “They look like any European family you would live next door to.”
On French television, the attacks on Ukraine have been depicted as an unimaginable assault on “a European city” unworthy of such a transgression. In Britain, The Daily Telegraph interpreted the Russian invasion as nothing less than an attack on “civilisation itself.” One reporter on UK television noted, “This is not a developing, third world nation; this is Europe!” as if to highlight the incongruence of events that, although apparently more routine when happening in the darker parts of the world, should not occur in areas where predominantly White populations reside.
The cumulative sum of the coverage evokes patterns of racial bias that prioritize the lives, well-being and futures of White victims of war – too often at the expense of Black lives.
The Arab and Middle East Journalists Association (AMEJA) released a statement condemning what it called “orientalist and racist” coverage, asserting that it’s been casting largely White victims of violence, death and suffering as more worthy of the world’s moral empathy and political assistance than people of color around the world experiencing similar crises.
The racial framing of media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine also elides the very real plight faced by Africans and others in the war-ravaged nation.
Students, immigrants and others from Africa (or who are of African descent), India and Pakistan who have been trying to flee report being delayed, sent to the back of the line or outright rejected, primarily because of their skin color. Representatives from Kenya, Ghana and Gabon – three African nations who belong to the United Nations Security Council – have lodged formal complaints alleging racism at the border where Africans living in Ukraine have sought refuge.
“The mistreatment of African peoples on Europe’s borders needs to cease immediately, whether to the Africans fleeing Ukraine or to those crossing the Mediterranean,” Martin Kimani, the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN, said Monday. Kimani’s words were echoed by the Ghanaian Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Carolyn Oppong-Ntiri who pleaded that humanitarian aid be directed equitably toward Africans affected by this crisis, “including medical care in line with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.”
The “just like us” tenor of the coverage underscores the uncanny power of race to both implicitly and explicitly shape intellectual analysis, political calculations and moral judgements.
It also betrays a poor sense of history. The idea that, in contrast to Iraq and Afghanistan, which are presumably used to ceaseless conflicts, Europe is a bastion of peace and civility is absurd. Any student of 20th-century global history, especially as it relates to the carnage of the First and Second World War, will appreciate just how wrongheaded such sentiment is.
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The posture of surprise over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also ignores the complicity of recent American leadership – former President Trump’s sycophantic relationship to Vladimir Putin, which in certain instances marveled at the Russian leader’s autocratic tendencies as a sign of laudable strength.
There is some hope to be found in the United Nations’ admission that racism has hindered access to care for African and non-White refugees. No problem can be solved without first being confronted.
The global crisis of racism, inequity and anti-immigrant xenophobia might seem secondary to the violence of the conflict in Ukraine but in truth, they are inextricable concerns. Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty reflects the growing strength of autocratic leaders, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Similarly, the treatment of African refugees in Ukraine in the context of war illustrates the xenophobia and racial intolerance that has fueled Brexit and aspects of the anti-globalization and nationalist movements that have flourished over the past decade.
One of the most important lessons of Russia’s war against Ukraine is that the whole world continues to watch, respond to and take cues from not only American and Western power, but more tellingly, the power of our example. No single ethnic, racial or religious group has a greater capacity for civilization, personal dignity or citizenship than others. Now is the time to stand with all Ukrainians, immigrants and refugees seeking refuge from the storm of war.