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Smith: Ukraine and race

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Yes, there is a racial component to the current state of affairs in Ukraine, both in the U.S. and in that besieged nation. I’ll begin with the latter. News outlets have widely reported that foreigners of color — Black Americans, Africans, Indians, Latinos and others — have suffered racial indignities. These include, among others, being refused entry onto buses and trains, being forced off buses and trains in which they are already riding, and being treated harshly by border guards when they’re trying to enter other nations. (Reports keep arising about Poland being a particularly difficult nation for people of color to enter.)

Of course, there are other stories that speak of kind treatment and assistance with clothing, money and even housing, both from the Ukrainian government and from ordinary citizens. It is difficult to know whether there is a substantial disparity between these two competing narratives, especially during the chaos of war. Still, even the United Nation’s high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, has said that such discrimination is occurring. In response, the UN has publicly shared that it will intervene. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has spoken out as well. Khan, who is a Muslim and a person of color, has frequently spoken out about racism in Europe. (Sadly, some people believe the myth that people of color who are wealthy and/or politically powerful are somehow exempt from racial bias.)

Regarding the U.S., it is common for race to figure into any major news story, explicitly or implicitly. That should not be surprising given our history, as well as our contemporary challenges with race.

Disturbingly, even acknowledging the plight of Ukrainians has caused controversy among African Americans. I have seen many Black folks post an admonishment that Dick Gregory is said to have uttered: “Stay out of white folks’ business.” Though the story probably is apocryphal (I spent a whole 10 minutes doing Google searches), it resonates with many African Americans. The sentiment is intended to convey (1) that there is no benefit to us for “getting involved” with affairs that don’t directly affect us and (2) some of us care more about white people’s problems than we do about our own. It’s one of the myriad versions of racial infighting that I refer to as the “Blacker Than Thou” syndrome.

This reaction speaks to Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ argument regarding the difficulty of being Black in America: “One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. … He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.”

The psychological journey of being Black in America seems to have endless roadblocks, detours, rough pavement and even landmines. I understand that even well-meaning white people don’t fully comprehend how difficult it is to be an African American who follows just about any major news story without wondering about the ways in which it might affect us. While there are innumerable Black musicians who I could reference, I also think that one of Bruce Springsteen’s lines is appropriate: “You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, till you spend half your life just coverin’ up.”

Let me be clear about two things. First, I am in no way trying to make the tragedy in Ukraine about Black folks; it isn’t. Second, I am not attempting to negate the suffering that the people of Ukraine are enduring. As I’ve stated on several occasions, Vladimir Putin is a homicidal, megalomaniacal would-be dictator. He proved that long before last week’s invasion. However, even in the midst of war, it is incumbent upon all people of goodwill to ensure that their fellow human beings are treated humanely and fairly. That means, among other things, that Black folks should not be relegated to the proverbial “back of the bus” — even in Ukraine.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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