When It Comes to America’s Race Issues, Russia Is a Bogeyman

As talk turns once again to Russia’s role in stoking racial tensions ahead of an election, the United States would be wise to look within.

U.S. Flag Burning Protest
Anti-Trump activists burn U.S. flags at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House on July 4. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As Black Lives Matter protests against police killings of Black people began spreading across the United States in late May, it did not take long for Russia to wade in. Russian media outlets jumped on the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, highlighting America’s grave racial injustices. Russian bots helped spread disinformation about the protests. In the United States, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees warned against Russian incursion and urged that the government take action to prevent Russian involvement while noting that Russia was not inventing racial tensions but seeking to exploit them. But such calls also play into a century-old narrative in which the U.S. government’s recurring anxiety around foreign-led radicalization of African Americans recycles old tropes about Black people being politically gullible and vulnerable to foreign meddling. If a repeat of this aspect of the 2016 U.S. presidential election is to be avoided, the government must not use a bogeyman of Russian interference to dismiss Black activism once again.

In 2019, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee determined that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) and its military intelligence directorate, known as GRU, led a sweeping campaign to disrupt the 2016 election. According to the committee findings, the IRA and GRU directed nearly two-thirds of their activities at African Americans. Using social media platforms, Russian government agencies had more than 11 million engagements with Facebook users and mobilized people to sign petitions against racism. Russian online actors also reproduced videos of police brutality and amplified the societal fallout from the football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests, aiming to push Black voters to boycott the election or to encourage them to support a third-party candidate. Ultimately, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the IRA and GRU sought to “stoke anger, provoke outrage and protest, push Americans further away from one another, and foment distrust in government institutions.”

In blaming the Russian bogeyman, the American political establishment failed to explore the root cause of African American marginality and disillusionment with the American political system: the United States’ explicit and implicit embrace of white supremacy. While the findings are convincing, the committee’s conclusions that Russia was largely culpable for disenfranchising African Americans and causing anti-U.S. government sentiments are not only problematic but unfounded. In blaming the Russian bogeyman, the American political establishment failed to explore the root cause of African American marginality and disillusionment with the American political system: the United States’ explicit and implicit embrace of white supremacy. Furthermore, the Senate committee’s conclusions are underpinned by misinformed assumptions about Black people’s agency and a disregard for the actual conditions of inequality.

Such assumptions have a deep history in 20th-century Western and European colonial logics, and its enemies have long sought to exploit them. In its Soviet incarnation, Moscow attempted to use America’s embrace of white supremacy and anti-Black laws and norms to weaken and destroy the United States from within. From its inception in 1917, the Soviet leadership actively explored how to mobilize and encourage Black people to join the communist movement and inspire a communist revolution. Under the purview of the Communist International (Comintern), a global but Soviet-led organization that sought to forge an international communist movement to instigate a global revolution, a “Negro Commission” was established. After a few years of contentious deliberations, factionalism, and fratricide in the 1920s, the Comintern largely outlined the Black or Native Republic thesis for South Africa and a “Black Belt thesis” for the United States in the Sixth Congress in 1928, which called for a separate, independent Black republic in South Africa and America. (Notably, these proposals mimicked the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s “Africa for the Africans” policy in 1921, which the Communists had previously denounced and rejected.)

The Native Republic and Black Belt ideas were constructed on the premise that white supremacist institutions and societies in South Africa and the United States would never grant Black people equal treatment. Consequently, the Comintern called on Black populations to secede from their respective countries to escape their historical and present systemic marginalization. The proposals faced intense criticism for suggesting that Black people essentially expel themselves from the West rather than fight for equality within it. Many quit the party, and others were ousted for failing to push these policies. Yet, with these efforts, the Soviet Union had waded into South Africa’s and America’s domestic affairs. It had sought to employ America’s and the European powers’ embrace of white supremacy to cause their destructions.

The impact of such efforts on Black communities was considerable. In response to the Soviet push, Western governments spent the next 30 years conflating African and Black liberation movements with Soviet or communist propaganda. British colonial reports are littered with fears that foreign outsiders, “agitators,” “provocateurs,” “Communists,” or “Russians” were fomenting racial agitation. Western officials worried that these figures were implanting anti-American, anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and anti-Western thoughts into the minds of their Black and colonized subjects.

Such language pointed to a deeper belief among Western officials that the subjugated mind was incapable of comprehending its oppression and the causes for it. To monitor this situation and ease their concerns, Western governments dispatched spies to infiltrate Black and African Marxists and anti-colonial circles. Members of these groups were observed religiously, their every movement tracked and recorded. Western governments opened, read, copied, and circulated their communications. In the British colony of the Gold Coast, suspected communists were banned from holding government positions. The British government banned communist literature from its colonies. In the United States, the government blacklisted communists and, in some cases, stripped their American citizenship.

By framing the quest for Black independence and equality as the workings of Soviet, Russian, or external agents, Western officials failed to recognize that their subjugated subjects hardly needed agitators, provocateurs, or communists to inform them about their sufferings. Black leaders refuted the idea that they were being manipulated. The anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela pondered why people could not fathom that it was actually Black liberationists who were using the Communists and not the other way around.

In the 1950s, George Padmore, a key Black Marxist anti-colonial figure, reminded the world that “Negroes are keenly aware that they are the most racially oppressed and economically exploited people in the world.” He also noted that Black people “also are very much alive to the fact, demonstrated by the opportunistic and cynical behavior of the Communists, that the latter’s interest in them is dictated by the ever changing tactics of Soviet foreign policy rather than by altruistic motives.” Padmore’s words remain relevant today. Black people remain one of the most racially oppressed and economically exploited groups in the world. They are keenly aware that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not seriously concerned with their predicament but is exploiting their suffering to advance Russia’s own foreign policy objectives.

In response to concerns that Russian operatives were manipulating the Black Lives Matter movement before and after the 2016 election, the Black Lives Matter Global Network responded forcefully. While acknowledging concerns that the IRA and GRU were trying to hijack its message, the group noted that it would “not be deterred by those attempting to exploit us and the millions of Black folks in America.” It maintained that it would continue “to work tirelessly to challenge white supremacy, injustice, and oppression throughout the world” and “continue to fight for Black Liberation across the globe.” African Americans did and do not need Russian bots to educate them about police brutality and systemic racism in the United States. It is their daily reality.

Merely stopping Russian and foreign bots and actors replicating and reproducing Black Lives Matter hashtags and concerns will not destroy the fertile ground that aided Russia’s foreign-policy objectives. The 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian influence failed to substantially address police brutality and systemic racism against African Americans that gave rise to the conditions that facilitated Russia’s efforts. Whereas the Senate report criticized private firms like Google, Twitter, and Facebook for not countering Russia’s efforts, Republicans and their appointees remain as guilty, if not more so, for depressing African American voter turnout. Throughout the country, elected Republican officials have removed and closed polling stations in high-density predominately African American population areas. The conservative-majority Supreme Court has gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Elected Republican officials have simultaneously purged hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls while seeking to limit or stop mail-in and absentee ballot voting—these measures predominately negatively impact African Americans. In fact, many elected Republican officials and appointees do not even acknowledge that systemic racism exists in America.

But the debilitated state of affairs in Democratic-led African American communities does not inspire confidence either. Indeed, in 1961, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the greatest American sociologists, noted that while he had critiqued socialists and communists “for trying to segregate Southern Negro members” with Black Belt policies, he had also recoiled at the reality that one major political party had a monopoly over African Americans while the other sought to disenfranchise them. Du Bois’s words still resonate with Black political activists today, some of whom have rejected the two-party system and formed or joined splinter political parties.

Across both Republican- and Democrat-led Black-majority jurisdictions, there is a persistent lack of access to decent health care, mental health, and social services; excellent public schools; and healthy foods. Moreover, racial segregation akin to what the United States experienced in the 1960s is alive and well, and overpolicing and environmental pollution and degradation adversely impact African American neighborhoods.

For African Americans, it is a sobering reality that Black lives appear expendable across the political establishment. The United States is not divided. It is a country, as the Rev. Al Sharpton eulogized at George Floyd’s funeral, where one racial group has viciously put its knee on the neck and back of another. Suggesting that America is divided is to imply that both sides are culpable for this state of affairs. They are not.

Four years from the 2016 election, the American political and private establishment has failed to remove the root causes of African Americans’ despondence and skepticism. Systemic racism exists in all facets of Black peoples’ lives, and extrajudicial killings of Black people remain persistent. The Trump administration has established policies, performed stunts, and uttered statements that support white supremacy and denigrate Black lives. In 2017, Vice President Mike Pence used American taxpayer dollars to make a statement against the football player Kaepernick’s stance against police brutality—flying to Indianapolis to watch a game, only to turn his back and walk out when the players knelt.

It is no wonder that, just as they did four years ago, African Americans are today marching under the Black Lives Matter banner. Nothing has changed apart from the names: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks have replaced Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner.

If the United States is going to emerge stronger as a nation, it must not conflate African Americans’ real and historical issues with Russia’s foreign-policy aims. Addressing systemic racism and white supremacy across the United States is a national security concern, and it must be approached as such. As long as America creates and upholds racist policies, it does not even need foreign actors to exploit its original and ongoing sin to implode the country from within.

Nana Osei-Opare is an assistant professor of African and Cold War history at Fordham University. Twitter: @NanaOseiOpare

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