Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians—in the country, and around the world—have received an outpouring of support. That support has ranged from money for humanitarian aid to military weapons, and a great deal of it has come in the form of social media organizing and celebrity fundraising and advocacy. Local groups around the country have organized rallies to denounce Russian aggression and “Stand with Ukraine,” creating art and auctioning NFTs—and even painting rocks—to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Why is U.S. civil society mobilizing around this particular conflict? Because the Russia-Ukraine war fits into a story that the West often tells about itself. But this story lacks crucial context, and it cannot be separated from U.S. militarism and its impact around the world.
In the first weeks of the war, U.S. media coverage of the war made this racial identification explicit. White supremacy was on full display with reporters depicting Ukrainian refugees as deserving of support because, as CBS News senior foreign correspondent Chris D’Agata said—apparently being careful in choosing his words—Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Author and scholar Moustafa Bayoumi makes clear the underlying racism of these comments and others in his article for The Guardian, “They are ‘civilised’ and ‘look like us’: the racist coverage of Ukraine”: “These comments point to a pernicious racism that permeates today’s war coverage and seeps into its fabric like a stain that won’t go away. The implication is clear: war is a natural state for people of color, while white people naturally gravitate toward peace.”
By extension, as a former Ukrainian official said to the BBC, apparently without any pushback from the on-air host: “It’s very emotional…” because they are peaceful “European people with blue eyes and blond hair.” Read this as: These people are worthy of our concern and care. If that’s the case, who isn’t worthy of “our” solidarity?
These and other statements expose in stark relief the inherent falsity of “All Lives Matter” rhetoric by revealing what is obvious to many people of color, namely, and as Bayo Owesu writes: “All lives clearly, clearly do not matter in the same way.”
This is not to argue against solidarity with or aid for war-impacted Ukrainians. Calling out racism in U.S. media coverage and civil society’s responses to the invasion is about being more principled about what we mean by solidarity and how we show it. Indeed, as Jon Allsop argues in writing about racist media coverage of the war for the Columbia Journalism Review, “The war in Ukraine is a tragic opportunity for the Western press to interrogate and shed these assumptions, an act that, done properly, should not distract from the immense suffering of the Ukrainian people but help us see it even more clearly, in a universal context.”
That all lives do not actually matter was also evident in overt acts of racism at Ukraine’s border with Poland, where soldiers delayed—and at times, prevented—African and Asian students and immigrants from leaving Ukraine, forcing them to wait in sub-zero temperatures. And once they cross the borders of Europe, many African and Asian refugees are being held in long-term detention centers in Poland and Estonia.
The difference in U.S. governmental civil society responses to the war in Ukraine also exposes this country’s racist treatment of Black and Brown refugees—in general, and for those fleeing Ukraine, including at the US-Mexico border. For the past two years—under the previous and current administrations—the U.S. has barred asylum-seekers from entering the country by reviving an outdated provision, Title 42, enacted during the coronavirus pandemic. The approach is unofficially known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Title 42’s use relies on and continues a long tradition of racialized tropes about immigrants and refugees as unhealthy, potential carriers of disease. Immigration justice and human rights activists have denounced this racist policy; despite their campaigns and legal opposition, however, ICE and Customs & Border Protection continue to use it to exclude Black and Brown migrants from all over the world—but especially from Mexico and Central America.
Yet, as Julia Neusner, a refugee protection attorney with Human Rights First, tweeted in a thread last week:
“Today at the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana I watched as MX and US authorities allowed 26 Ukrainian asylum seekers to enter the U.S. and turned away a Mexican family who’d been waiting alongside them, saying they couldn’t seek asylum bc of Title 42 and would have to wait.”
Clearly, Title 42 isn’t about public health and safety; it’s about keeping Black and Brown immigrants out of the U.S. Title 42 is, for now, a convenient excuse, as the Biden administration plans to end the pandemic-era restrictions and is preparing for what Homeland Security officials call a “surge” of migrants of color at the border—in other words, to arrest and detain Black and Brown asylum-seekers—while pledging to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the U.S. But as Guerline Jozef, the executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, said in a recent call with reporters, “It is imperative that all people seeking asylum… are received with dignity regardless of their country of origin, whether they are from Haiti or Ukraine, Russia or Guatemala.”
No, it’s not just geopolitics, it’s racism
A common response to critics who expose the racism underlying the care and solidarity shown to Ukraine is that it’s about geopolitics and the potential for conflict on a global scale.
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To be sure, Russia’s war has global implications—but so did the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11, which led to a 20-year U.S. occupation of the country that killed tens of thousands of civilians and led to several other wars. According to the Human Costs of War project, in the years that followed 9/11, almost 1 million people have been killed by direct war violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, including 387,000 civilians—and this doesn’t include people who died indirectly from war-related issues like the destruction of hospitals and environmental contamination.
The war and occupation of Afghanistan ended last year in a hasty U.S. exit from the country, which has since returned to Taliban rule. Despite much handwringing from politicians and media pundits over the Biden administration’s approach to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, less than a year later, their anguish over “saving Afghan allies” has mostly been forgotten. During the withdrawal, the U.S. government froze the assets of Afghanistan’s Central Bank. The country has since plunged into an economic crisis, leading to widespread malnutrition and starvation. After 20 years of war, 23 million people are in danger of dying—among them, the next generation of Afghans—because they don’t have enough to eat.
Where is civil society’s solidarity with the people of Afghanistan who are still living with the consequences of U.S. aggression? Or with Somalians when U.S. forces lead air strikes on Somalia, as they did earlier this year? Or with people affected by the U.S.-backed war on Yemen, which is now entering its eighth year?
Nonprofit organizations have been a conspicuous part of this show of mass solidarity—and not just those that are focused on international human rights or humanitarian aid or on opposing war and militarism. The nonprofit sector is heterogenous, but across the board, it seems like everyone—from writers’ guilds to wildlife advocates—has published a statement of solidarity with Ukraine.
But statements and displays of solidarity with Ukraine that aren’t critical of war and militarism are in fact contributing to the conflict by what they omit. Western powers are shipping weapons to Ukraine, and U.S. troops are in Poland to bolster NATO’s eastern front during the invasion. Now they’re providing tactical weapons training to the Ukrainian military.
While some argue that funding for equipment and training is a way for the U.S. to aid Ukrainian forces against the invasion without directly confronting Russian forces, this kind of military support is exactly what will exacerbate the conflict. Putin’s Kremlin has already spread a conspiracy theory—that the U.S. has been secretly funding bioweapons factories in Ukraine—a theory that finds proponents in the U.S. among QAnon and other far-right and white supremacist groups.
Authoritarian leaders often accuse their opponents of injustices that they intend to perpetrate. The emergence of Russian disinformation about biological weapons is being used by the war’s supporters to justify the conflict, but it also signals the possibility of a Russian-sponsored biological or chemical attack. This is a tactic that comes straight out of the U.S. government’s playbook—namely, the George W. Bush administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq.
Anti-war movements, civil liberties groups, and BIPOC organizers did much to challenge the imperialist “weapons of mass destruction” narrative at the time, but the larger sector was missing. And that’s how we are where we are now.
The need for a new anti-war movement
As Shiyam Galyon, a Syrian-American communications strategist, wrote in a recent op-ed for Truthout, “most people in the U.S. have no idea how to talk about war.” That’s by design, in a country that has the largest military in the world, with a presence on everyone continent and in every ocean. Even as the protracted global war on terror became increasingly unpopular, U.S. military budgets increased, year over year. To date, half of all U.S. income taxes goes to the Pentagon each year—both for current military spending and to pay down debts created by waging past wars. The Biden administration has already increased next year’s military budget—in part, to send weapons to Ukraine.
While the majority of Americans don’t want the U.S. to enter a new war, and some may even express their concern for people impacted by war through small acts of solidarity, as Galyon notes, this isn’t the same thing as being organized to be anti-war. To imagine what anti-war work looks like on a societal level, Galyon encourages us to turn to the work of abolitionists organizing to defund and abolish policing and prisons.
Supporting a new and effective American anti-war movement necessarily means supporting abolitionist racial justice efforts here and abroad. How? There are many possible forms this could take, but here are a few possibilities for organizing:
- Ending U.S. wars and military activities, which disproportionately impact the global South
- Redistributing resources from the military-industrial complex to the civil sector, for health care, education, and more—and doing so in ways that are led by and center the needs of oppressed and racialized people, as part of the larger, Black-led abolitionist movement against state violence in the U.S.
- Organizing for debt cancellation in the U.S. and the global South
Will the nonprofit sector take up this challenge to address what is clearly racial bias in the differential provision of humanitarian aid and political solidarity? If not, the sector’s claims to care about racial justice ring hollow. The geopolitics of war is not an abstraction; it is intimately connected to our lives and society in the U.S., and we must expand our thinking and organizing to end all wars.
Why? This should go without saying, but it still needs to be said: All people who are living under the oppressive conditions of state violence, war, and occupation are worthy and deserving of our solidarity and care.