One argument that’s prevalent in certain circles is that mostly white people, particularly males, care about drones. This argument has become pretty prominent in the age of Obama. It’s typically made by Obama supporters to shut down critics of his counterterrorism policies, such as drone strikes. It’s an asinine argument that marginalizes nonwhite antiwar voices and provides a multicultural veneer to empire.
Columnist David Sirota wrote a piece in Salon.com comparing President Obama’s militaristic foreign policy to George Zimmerman’s vigilantism. He argued that both men saw themselves as above the law, believed they had the right to kill whoever they want, and racially-profiled and automatically assumed the guilt of their victims. Obama’s drones kill brown-skinned Muslims, while George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager.
Sirota’s argument was legitimate and one I agree with. Black people in America are extra-judicially killed by police in the same way that brown-skinned Muslims in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are extra-judicially killed by drone strikes, other weapons, or raids by special operations forces. This is also motivated by a similar racist ideology that dehumanizes the lives of African-Americans and brown-skinned Muslims, thereby, making them open season for American firepower. The nationalities of the victims are different. Different parts of the state do the killing — military overseas, police domestically. But African-Americans and non-American, brown-skinned Muslims are both on the receiving end of the same oppressive practice — extra-judicial killing. That’s an example of institutional racism.
However, many “progressive” commentators disagreed with Sirota and responded furiously. Blogger Rad-Femme Lawyer for the website This Week in Blackness chastised Sirota’s comparison and the “privilege-blindness among the mostly white male drone-obsessed elite”. She argued that “[t]his inappropriate parallel between Obama and Zimmerman erases the suffering of Black people and other marginalized groups in America, allows white men to co-opt the conversation while claiming that they are anti-racist, ignores crucial differences between vigilante justice and foreign policy, and requires Obama to be superhuman to maintain authority.”
In the Huffington Post, writer Bob Cesca suggested:
“…comparing the first African American president with George Zimmerman, as well as comparing Zimmerman’s victim, Trayvon Martin, with a notorious al-Qaida operative is not only in extraordinarily bad taste, but it helps to clarify any suspicions raised by the previous two factors in this optics issue. I’m not personally suggesting that Sirota and the others are racists — I don’t know him personally and I really don’t know if he is or isn’t. However, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if such a conclusion became increasingly prevalent, and not just against Sirota alone but the other high profile members of the anti-Obama left as well.” (emphasis added)
I’ve made numerous criticisms of drone strikes and targeted killing that can counter many of these commentators’ points. So I won’t bother repeating them here. However, I will say that the fundamental premise underlying drone strikes — that the United States is and should be engaged in a global perpetual war against terrorism — is flawed and, once embraced, leads to policies that exacerbate human suffering. Many of the commentators criticizing Sirota’s piece have either been supportive or apologetic about the premise of perpetual war.
The point I do wish to address is their labeling of Obama’s antiwar critics as mostly white. That argument I take issue with.
It is certainly true that many antiwar circles are dominated by white voices. I know this from personal experience and it’s a huge problem. But white people are not the only voices criticizing U.S. militarism. As a black journalist who covers war and peace issues, drone strikes, human rights, police brutality, and spent two weeks in Guantanamo reporting on military commissions and indefinite detention, the mostly-white-people-hate-drones argument is one I find infuriating. It leaves out my voice and the voices of other people of color who’ve long criticized American militarism.
Given the fact that many U.S. wars occur in black and brown countries, the victims are predominantly people of color around the world. Many of them have raised their voices against U.S. wars. For example, a few months ago, Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist, spoke in Congress and gave a very heart-wrenching testimony about the disastrous impacts of drone strikes in Yemen. He talked about how drones kill innocent civilians and radicalize communities. Shortly before that hearing, his village was hit by a U.S. drone strike, which he said “terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers”. He added, “I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants.”
Farea is not alone. Many nonwhite writers, academics, journalists, and activists regularly criticize American empire. They include Falguni Sheth, Laleh Khalili, Lisa Hajjar, Sohail Daulatzai, Rania Khalek, Remi Kenazi, Nima Shirazi, writers at publications like Jadaliyya, and many more.
Moreover, the mostly-white-people-hate drones argument marginalizes the rich history of black internationalism — a tradition that informs my politics. Black internationalism views African-Americans as a transnational people because they are descendants of African slaves who were stolen from their homeland and brought to the Americas by European colonizers who exploited their labor. While slavery ended more than 150 years ago, patterns of racial inequality and oppression persist. Of course African-Americans are “American” by virtue of citizenship. But our ancestral roots are undeniably African. Elements of this can be seen in our culture, particularly music; not to mention our obvious African features like dark skin and kinky hair. The experiences of African-Americans in the United States are different from Afro-Mexicans, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Caribbeans, African immigrants to the U.S., and continental Africans. But black internationalism necessitates that African-Americans take an internationalist of who they are and what to demand rather than narrow their purview to American borders. Centuries of slavery and colonialism spread African people to multiple corners of the globe, such as the United States, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, parts of the Arab World, and even South Asia. Many of them experience similar forms of racial oppression. Therefore, for African people to have an internationalist perspective makes sense to address these realities.
Black internationalism can trace it roots to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As black people were stolen from their African homeland to other parts of the world, internationalism naturally emerged as a strategy to counter the transnational nature of their oppression. This is why African slaves and free blacks in America were inspired by the Haitian revolution, in which black Haitian slaves kicked out their French colonizers. So much so that whites feared that “Haiti’s successful revolt could inspire slave insurrections in the United States”, which “led to increased restrictions on the movements of blacks in Southern states,” according to author and historian Peniel E. Joseph. In 1893, abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture lauding Haiti’s revolution and expressed support for the young nation. At that time, Douglass was U.S. consul-general to Haiti.
In the first half of the twentieth century, many black intellectuals and activists were internationalist in their thinking. W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and C.L.R. James linked the struggles of black people to colonized peoples around the world. Black internationalism led to the development of Pan-Africanism and influenced revolutionaries like Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and the Black Panther Party. Even postcolonialism as articulated by Frantz Fanon can be considered as falling within the black internationalist tradition.
Black internationalism also influenced modern conceptions of human rights . Civil rights activists and groups like W.E.B. DuBois, the NAACP, and the National Negro Congress (NNC) petitioned the infant United Nations to address racist Jim Crow laws that violated the rights of African-Americans. These petitions failed largely due to pressure by the United States government. However, prohibitions against racial discrimination were later incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other human rights standards.
Anticommunism and state repression during the Cold War, however, diminished black internationalist sentiment. Groups like the NNC were branded by the FBI as “communist and un-American” . This made many black churches and unions reluctant to support their UN petition. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 and connected the suffering of African-Americans to U.S. militarism, he was shunned by many fellow civil rights activists who previously supported him. The repression of black radical groups like the Black Panther Party meant that black politics would remain within the acceptable boundaries of mainstream American politics. However, black internationalism was not totally defeated.
“Around 200 million people who identify themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent proclaiming this International Year, the international community is recognising that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. People of African descent are acknowledged in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as a specific victim group who continue to suffer racial discrimination as the historic legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Even Afro-descendants who are not directly and racial discrimination that still persist today, generations after the slave trade ended.” (emphasis added)
While the year 2011 already ended, the need to recognize people of African descent as a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted remains pertinent. Recently, a group of UN experts urged the United States to finalize a review of the Trayvon Martin killing and examine racial discriminatory laws. “We call upon the US Government to examine its laws that could have discriminatory impact on African Americans, and to ensure that such laws are in full compliance with the country’s international legal obligations and relevant standards,” said Verene Shepherd, a human rights expert and current head of the UN Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent. Despite earlier unsuccessful attempts to raise the oppression of African-Americans as a human rights issue, various international bodies recognize it as such.
It is this internationalist perspective that’s long informed African-American opposition to U.S. wars and imperialism. Identifying African-Americans as part of a transnational diaspora of African people elevates their concerns from a national level to an international level. Moreover, it also means that African-Americans should stand in solidarity with other oppressed “darker peoples” throughout the world. A group of black scholars and activists called “African Americans for Justice in the Middle East & North Africa” issued a solidarity statement last year supporting the region’s struggles for self-determination and opposing U.S. imperialism. It recognized that the “unique experience of African Americans in the USA can play a significant role by lending a hand to support the dynamic change sweeping the region and meaningfully contribute to bridging the cultural divides between the USA and the Middle East and North African regions at large.”
Unfortunately, what passes for much of black politics is a form of liberal assimilationism that marries black people with the American power structure. Rather than challenge power, this form of black politics only seeks to diversify it. Hence why it finds a black president dropping bombs on black and brown people in countries like Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan excusable, less egregious, or unworthy of critical inattention. The corollary is that it views Obama’s antiwar critics as “mostly white” racists and “emoprog” ideologues. Courtiers of power can be seen quacking this propaganda on media outlets like MSNBC or websites that purport to be “progressive” and “antiracist”. Yet, this does not change a basic reality — killing and bombing black and brown people around the world is very racist and not progressive.
Fortunately, the black internationalist tradition is kept alive by black writers, and activists such as Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley, Pascal Robert, Cornel West, Dr. Jared Ball, Ajamu Baraka, and Yvette Carnell, along with publications like Black Agenda Report and Pambazuka. Under what currently passes for “liberal” black politics, however, these people are just “haters”.
Black internationalism is especially important today because U.S. militarism is now being carried out by a black president. It can make the connections between U.S. wars abroad and the oppression of black people and other people of color domestically. Having a black president does not change this systemic reality. This makes black internationalism an important check on American hegemony.
Even though black internationalism is marginalized in mainstream American politics, including within the progressive left, that does not mean the tradition is gone. There are many black voices who are critical of American militarism, despite how marginalized they are. They are joined by their Arab, South Asian, Latino, Filipino, and other nonwhite brothers and sisters who oppose empire because, like black people, they know how disastrous it is. Therefore, it’s erroneous to paint Obama’s antiwar critics as “mostly white”. There are many nonwhite antiwar voices that the establishment is not listening to — and it’s easy to see why.
 Normand, Roger and Zaidi, Sarah, Human Rights at the UN: The Political History of Universal Justice, Indiana University Press, 2008, pp. 162 – 166