by Bryan K. Bullock
To read the foreign policy pages of the New York Times is to enter a world of whiteness. “Whites are the only ones who are presumed to have an opinion on such issues that is worth mentioning.” Although Black America is the nation’s most anti-imperial constituency, foreign policy is considered a white preserve. Blacks “serve the function we have always served: subjects of imperialism, scapegoats for repression, but not shapers of foreign policy.”
Black American Anti-Imperialism: an Invisible Subject for the New York Times
by Bryan K. Bullock
“From Vietnam through Iraq, African Americans have proved to be the group of Americans most opposed to U.S. military intervention.”
The October 4, 2016, issue of the New York Times, which contained the article, “Syrian War Magnifies Tension in America’s Global Mission,” is a case study in white supremacy. The article is framed from a totally white “conservative” and “liberal” frame, and completely ignores the perspective of African Americans, who, traditionally, and today, are consistently and overwhelmingly, anti-imperialism and who tend to identify with other Black and Brown people across the globe, including the Palestinians and Syrians.
The article purports to give “both sides” of the argument for U.S. intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations. The authors of the article give the impression that they are being “balanced” in giving the views of those who support America’s “mission” in the world and those who are “critical” of said “mission.” This false “balance” does not include the perspectives of any African American historians or critics of U.S. foreign policy, like Professor Gerald Horne, Bill Fletcher, Anthony Monteiro, Glen Ford or African (American) scholars like Horace Campbell. In fact, “both sides” of any debate in the U.S. regarding foreign policy, are both white “sides.” This is particularly true when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, where whites are the only ones who are presumed to either have an opinion on such issues, or one that is worth mentioning.
It is true that “both sides” could include Blacks who adhere to the Eurocentric, party-line views of the dominant U.S. narrators, say, Donna Brazile or Condoleezza Rice, or Blacks on the so-called “left,” but their views (still missing from this piece) are not a Black critique. It is a Eurocentric critique coming from a Black person, which is fundamentally different than an African American critique viewed through the lens of the African American experience. The ideas, views and critiques of Black thinkers are notoriously absent in the pages of the Times when it comes to foreign policy -- which proves that the writers, the editorial staff and the paper itself does not consider those views important. And in ignoring those critiques, it also ignores the historical critical analysis of the people who are and have been the subjects of U.S. foreign policy.
“The ideas, views and critiques of Black thinkers are notoriously absent in the pages of the Times when it comes to foreign policy.”
It also completely ignores the analysis of great Black historical thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, Walter Rodney and Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, the late stage Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the organizations they represented such as the Council on African Affairs (the CAA), the NAACP of the 1940’s, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Black Panther Party, The African Blood Brotherhood, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Trans Africa, the U.S. Human Rights Network, the United Negro Improvement Association or the National Council of Black Lawyers, all of whom were deeply critical of America’s so-called mission in the world, especially as it related to African and Asian peoples, like Haitians, Congolese, Syrians, Yemenis and Palestinians. The critiques of these people are irrelevant to, not only the Times, but in truth, to the Democratic and Republican parties, the current incarnation of the NAACP, the Black Congressional Caucus, President Obama and most white liberal formations. However, this is not a reason to give the Times a pass. Even the use of the word “mission,” with the European habit of sending missionaries into Africa and the Americas to soften the people up with European religion before they were subdued by hard power, does not elicit irony on the part of the Times. The “white man’s burden” of “civilizing” the darker races of the world, through enslavement, destroying their religions, cultures, languages, colonizing their lands and resource and extracting their people and whisking them away to foreign lands to toil from birth to death for free, is just as important and essential a part of the history of “America’s Global Mission” as anything else mentioned in the piece.
The hand wringing of the mostly white imperialists on the “left” and on the right, regarding the proper way to engage in imperialism, is essentially what the piece presents. No other perspectives or voices are important or valid. Thus the perspectives of African American thinkers are only relevant in American discourse when it concerns “black” issues like police brutality, but not on international issues, although many black writers and thinkers would argue the two are connected. This is so even though the very presence people of African descent in America is a direct result of the United States’ foreign policy of capturing, importing and enslaving African people. This point is lost on white foreign policy writers. However, early Black thinkers were clear on this point. People like DuBois and Robeson, in the past, and contemporaries like Glen Ford, were/are, fiercely anti-imperialist.
“The perspectives of African American thinkers are only relevant in American discourse when it concerns ‘black’ issues like police brutality, but not on international issues.”
The white, imperialist presentation in the article excludes the ideas of Syrian Americans, Indigenous populations, Mexican and Puerto Rican Americans and Hawaiians, all of whom may have a totally different idea of America’s “obligation” in Syria. Penny M. Von Eschen notes in the book, Race Against Empire, Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937-1957, that “Objecting to U.S. support for South African and the European colonial powers, and increasingly challenging the notion that America was the legitimate leader of the ‘free world’ and therefore above censure, black Americans both criticized new directions in American foreign policy and attempted to use the United Nations as a forum in which to gain support for civil rights struggles in the United States.” African Americans are no less critical of America’s self-serving “mission” today as was then. African Americans were highly critical of the U.S.’s violent overthrow of the African nation of Libya, its aggressions toward Cuba in the 60’s and Venezuela in the Chavez era and today. We have not forgotten America’s refusal to recognize Haiti as an independent Black nation when it defeated the French. Nor are we unmindful of the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1915 and its support of dictators of the Duvalier family, the coup of the Aristide government and the fact that President Obama tried to prevent Aristide from returning to Haiti.
Black thinkers on international issues are highly supportive of the Palestinian cause and troubled by the continued expansion of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command, on the continent. This analysis is glaringly absent from mainstream media portrayals of America’s “duty” in the world. The Times article offers the view that, “Because many Americans see their foreign policy as a grand mission to make the world a better place, they tend to divide the world into heroes who support their ideals and villains who oppose them.” But which Americans are the writers talking about and whose “ideals” are represented in U.S. foreign policy. It is certain that the views of people like George Padmore, a leader in the Pan-African movement in the 40’s and 50’s, are not represented by this view. Padmore was clear that, “Empire and peace are incompatible.” Michael C. Dawson notes, in Blacks in and Out of the Left: “from Vietnam through Iraq, African Americans have proved to be the group of Americans most opposed to U.S. military intervention.” It is also purposely “forgotten” that the Black Panther Party was, following in the footsteps of their ideological predecessor, Malcolm X, staunchly anti-imperialist. As Eldridge Cleaver noted, the U.S. was “bankrolling and arming all of the oppressive regimes around the world.” One of the agenda items contained in the National Black Political Agenda, created in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 called for an end to the Vietnam War and the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Asia and Africa; the withdrawal of U.S. military, corporations, and communications facilities from southern Africa and the Third World; self-determination of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; an end to sanctions against Cuba and the closure of the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“African Americans were highly critical of the U.S.’s violent overthrow of the African nation of Libya, its aggressions toward Cuba in the 60’s and Venezuela in the Chavez era and today.”
Contemporary white American analysis of U.S. foreign excludes the historical reality that, in thinking of America’s support of so-called rebels in Syria and Libya, it is clear to African Americans that America never supported a single African liberation group in Africa. It is not lost on Black Americans that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were considered terrorists by the U.S. No African rebel movement seeking independence from the Dutch, British, French, German, Portuguese or Italian colonizers of African lands ever received a single drop of military support from Washington. The U.S. never supported the Mau Mau in Kenya, nor Frelimo in Mozambique, nor the ANC in South Africa, or any other revolutionary movement on the continent.
In fact, the contrary is true. From the coup against Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana to the assassination of Patrice Lumuumba in the Congo, to the capture of Nelson Mandela and to the support the racist apartheid system of South African and the murderous colonial regime in the former Rhodesia, the American government has consistently and forcefully opposed revolutionary movements in Africa and in fact supported their colonial oppressors. The only country to ever militarily support African liberation was Cuba, not the U.S. Regarding Mandela, (who the U.S. considered a terrorist) we heard him clearly when, in response to a request to condemn Fidel Castro, Yassar Arafat and Mommar Ghadifi, he said, your enemies are not necessarily our enemies. Indeed, not only did Castro send troops to aid the Angolans in defeating the South Africans, he also provided refuge for many African American freedom fighters, from Robert Williams to Assata Shakur. While the U.S. was infiltrating, surveilling and murdering Black political activists in the Black Panther Party, leaders of North Vietnam, China, Algeria and Cuba welcomed them as ambassadors of the African American community.
“It is clear to African Americans that America never supported a single African liberation group.”
Understanding this historical reality, Black thinkers are justifiably critical and suspicious of U.S. intentions in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. The greatest thinkers in African American culture explicitly made the connection between the U.S. and European colonialism abroad, in places like Syria, as an extension of the domestic policy of treating African Americans as second class citizens – or, as some African American thinkers have argued, the domestic colonization of Black people. The genocide of the Native Americans resonates with Black Americans. Leaders from MLK, who connected America’s imperialism in Vietnam, and the tax dollars used to support it, to the lack of financial resources available to be used to build cities and provide a basic wage; to Malcolm, who traveled the globe making personal connections with African heads of state, including Nasser in Egypt. It was Malcolm who saw the historic opportunity of the Bandung Conference, where 29 Asian and African, post-colonial nations, met to discuss their own fates independent of colonial powers, including the U.S.
Black American support for anti-imperialist movements did not find a space in the Times’ analysis of Syria. The writers and editorial staff at the Times are oblivious to the histories of the Third World peoples living in their midst. Therefore, for Black people who understand this history, they recognize articles like the one published in the Times as imperial propaganda pieces for global white supremacy. Yet, the Times, in that regard, is no different than any other white American newspaper, magazine or news program or politician. They all (even, or especially, the Black ones) present a Eurocentric worldview that excludes the ideas, histories and analysis of its black population. We are irrelevant. We serve the function we have always served: subjects of imperialism, scapegoats for repression, but not shapers of foreign policy. Blacks can nominally participate in the American experience, but only so long as we stay in our place and as long as we support the “manifest destiny” of the global hegemon and not get in its way. We are cannon fodder for the imperialist wars abroad and casualties in the U.S. war on drugs and on poor Black life at home.
“Malcolm traveled the globe making personal connections with African heads of state, including Nasser in Egypt.”
The presence of a black face at the head of the empire has provided cover for U.S. imperialism in Africa and Asia, but it has not diminished the anti-imperialism of the black community. It has silenced the voices of the self-appointed black “leaders” and revealed them to be supporters of empire and oppression. The Times, too, or rather again, reveals itself as a supporter of the Pentagon by publishing an article that is short on true analysis of America’s support of terrorists in Syria, as well as presenting a limited, white supremacist parameter of debate. Although the African American tradition of anti-imperialism may not be important to the Times, it is a tradition that is still alive nonetheless. And neither the Black face of the empire, nor the white press in service to it, can diminish it. Our antagonism against imperialism may not be publicized in the pages of the Times, but it lives on in our continued support for amnesty for Assata Shakur, the release of all political prisoners from Leonard Peltier to Jalil Muntiquim and Oscar Rivera Lopez, to support for Palestinian self-determination, to opposition to the re-colonization of Africa by America’s Africa Command, to the growing support by Black athletes, young and old, of Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, to our opposition to all U.S. wars of aggression, including the ones in Libya and Syria. African Americans’ opposition to the U.S. supported aggression in Syria, masquerading as humanitarian support, is obviously irrelevant to the Times, but Malcolm X told us plainly years ago, that the media would have us thinking the good guy was the bad guy and vice versa. So whether, or even if, Assad is a “ruthless dictator,” the term the U.S. has used against everyone from Castro to Chavez, it does not therefore mean that African Americans agree that the U.S. has the right to support insurrection in Syria. We know imperialism is Euro-American, white, capitalist venture that is carried against “the darker nations,” not for them. Malcolm, Martin and Mandela taught us well.
Attorney Bryan K. Bullock practices law in Merrillville, Indiana.