COMMENTARY

Whose lives really matter? How racism colors coverage of the crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine is a global crisis and a humanitarian tragedy. But Western media coverage has an obvious racial bias

By Chauncey DeVega

Published March 11, 2022 6:30AM (EST)

A Ukrainian serviceman helps evacuees gathered under a destroyed bridge, as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022. - Ukraine dismissed Moscow's offer to set up humanitarian corridors from several bombarded cities on March 7, 2022, after it emerged some routes would lead refugees into Russia or Belarus. The Russian proposal of safe passage from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol and Sumy had come after terrified Ukrainian civilians came under fire in previous ceasefire attempts. (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman helps evacuees gathered under a destroyed bridge, as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022. - Ukraine dismissed Moscow's offer to set up humanitarian corridors from several bombarded cities on March 7, 2022, after it emerged some routes would lead refugees into Russia or Belarus. The Russian proposal of safe passage from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol and Sumy had come after terrified Ukrainian civilians came under fire in previous ceasefire attempts. (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

The global color line endures, well into the 21st century, and white supremacy remains a global political and social project.

This is true both in times of war and peace. But it is during times of war and other disruption that these divides of race and other forms of social inequality are laid bare in the extreme.

War is a crucible for society; it reveals the deep character of a nation and people, the good and the bad, those attributes and traits more easily concealed during other more normal times.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has focused the world's attention. Reports suggest that at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, and millions displaced. Immense damage, into the billions of dollars, have been done to the country and its infrastructure.

RELATED: Ukraine and the dark lessons of war: What does it mean to "take" a country or a city?

To this point, the Ukrainian military is performing better against the Russian assault than most observers expected. The Russian military has yet to capture Ukraine's major cities, and has reportedly suffered heavy casualties. 

In terms of conventional warfare, Russia will almost certainly prevail — but it may, in the end, be defeated by what national security experts predict could be a 10- or 20-year insurgency and resistance campaign. Russia appears to lack either the will or the military power to occupy and pacify the entire country of Ukraine for an extended period.

Ultimately, the Ukraine war is a security crisis in the heart of Eurasia, whose consequences will impact that region, and the entire world, for many years to come.

The global color line intersects all these events and possible outcomes. Questions of identity and national belonging are central to the Ukraine crisis.

Reflecting that dynamic, much of the coverage of the war in Ukraine by the mainstream news media is advancing a narrative which implies that the lives of white people (especially when they are Christian and European) are more important than those of nonwhite people and Muslims.


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In his new essay recently published at Salon, Chris Hedges summarizes this:

Rulers divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims, those we are allowed to pity, such as Ukrainians enduring the hell of modern warfare, and those whose suffering is minimized, dismissed or ignored….

It is not that worthy victims do not suffer, nor that they are not deserving of our support and compassion, it is that worthy victims alone are rendered human, people like us, and unworthy victims are not. It helps, of course, when, as in Ukraine, they are white.

In a recent essay for MintPress News headlined "It's Different, They're White," Alan MacLeod explains:

For many, this disparity is simply about racism. "Ukraine is not the worst act of war since World War II. It's not even the worst war going on right now," wrote Sri Lanka-based journalist Indi Samarajiva, referring to Syria and Yemen; "It's just the worst to happen to white people."

Certainly, there has been a shocking amount of casually racist commentary on corporate media. "This 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 city where you wouldn't expect that or hope that it's going to happen," said CBS News foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata from Kiev.

Al-Jazeera English presenter Peter Dobbie made similarly Orientalist remarks, expressing his concern for wealthy Ukrainian refugees fleeing, while also demonstrating his contempt for poor non-white people in the same circumstances, stating:

"What is compelling is that just looking at them, the way they're dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people, these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa; they look like any European family that you would live next door to."

Others made similar remarks. "It's very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed," said Ukraine's former Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, while talking to the BBC, which did not challenge him on the statement. "The unthinkable has happened… This is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!" exclaimed ITV News reporter Lucy Watson in a tearful explanation as to why we need to help the refugees. "They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking," wrote former Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan in The Daily Telegraph. "War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone," he added.

D'Agata later apologized for his comments. Frankly, why should he? He was simply sharing his deeply held beliefs — common to many white people in the West — about the comparative value of Black and brown people's lives.

MSNBC host Joy Reid also addressed the way questions of race are influencing news coverage in the American and European media:

As the world watches the devastation unfold in Ukraine, nearly 4,000 miles away, another crisis is deepening that we don't hear much about in the U.S., and that is the war in Yemen….

The coverage of Ukraine has revealed a pretty radical disparity in how human Ukrainians look and feel to Western media compared to their browner and Blacker counterparts, with some reporters using very telling comparisons in their analyses of the war…

Let's face it, the world is paying attention because this is happening in Europe. If this was happening anywhere else, would we see the same outpouring of support and compassion?....

We don't need to ask ourselves if the international response would be the same if Russia unleashed their horror on a country that wasn't white and largely Christian, because Russia has already done it. In Syria,

This is a teachable moment for us in the media. We aren't afraid to call out our own industry. There is a lot of soul-searching that we need to do in Western media about why some wars and lives seem to matter more than others.

On the ground, race and the color line are a matter of life and death in Ukraine. It has been reported that Black African immigrants in Ukraine (including students) are not being given the same priority as white Ukrainians for evacuation and permission to enter neighboring countries such as Poland.

Race as a modern concept was an invention of roughly the 15th century, at the outset of the European global project of colonialism and imperialism, which included the Transalantic Slave Trade and acts of genocide against Black, brown and indigenous peoples around the world. Biologically, the concept of race is meaningless: All human beings are 99.9% the same genetically. But race is real because it is a social fact, one that has shaped entire societies for centuries.

For example, in practice this means that race is made real (and can be unmade) by societies and individuals. There were no "white" people in Europe prior to the invention of the race concept. Other identities of religion, class, region, language, clan, birth, "people," "country" and "nation" were primary.  

For most of its existence what is now known as Europe has not been united by a common identity. For centuries that continent and region featured savage warfare and other conflict between people we would now consider "white," even without considering the obvious examples of the two world wars in the 20th century. 

Despite the racist fantasies that Europe was once a "pure" and exclusively "white" civilization that was somehow homogeneous, actual history tells a different story. Mongols, Arabs, Africans, Turks and other "non-white" people(s) have played influential roles in the history of Europe from antiquity to the present. This is especially true in the vast landmass of contemporary Russia, much of which is actually in Asia. 

RELATED: Trumpism is rooted in twisted visions of medieval Europe 

One reason why race endures as a category of power and societal meaning is because it shifts and changes over time in response to the political and social questions of the moment. Russians and other Eastern European or Slavic peoples were not viewed as entirely or decisively "white" by American and European elites until well into the 20th century. (The same can also be said of many people from southern Europe, including Italians and Greeks.) For example, Hitler and the Nazis clearly viewed Slavic peoples as inferior, as compared to Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Teutonic and other "prime" European "stock."

The centuries-old racial logic that places white Europeans at the top and all other so-called races in descending order of "civilization," "intelligence," "beauty" and overall desirability — with Black people on the lowest level — still holds influence in contemporary Western and global society. Much of this racist pseudoscience is based on the concept of the "Great Chain of Being," which posited that God was at the top of the natural order, closely followed by white Europeans and then descending downward to "the negro," apes and gorillas.

As sociologist Lisa Wade wrote in 2012: 

The theorization of the great chain of being was not just for "science" or "fun." It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people. If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than, even less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.

This is a "generalizable tactic of oppression," by the way. During the period of intense anti-Irish sentiment in the U.S. and Britain, the Irish were routinely compared to apes as well.

Madison Grant, a "race scientist" of the late 19th and early 20th century, made this influential pronouncement in his book "The Passing of the Great Race":

The United States of America must be regarded racially as a European colony, and owing to current ignorance of the physical bases of race, one often hears the statement made that native Americans of Colonial ancestry are of mixed ethnic origin. This is not true. At the time of the Revolutionary War the settlers in the thirteen Colonies were not only purely Nordic, but also purely Teutonic, a very large majority being Anglo-Saxon in the most limited meaning of that term. The New England settlers in particular came from those counties of England where the blood was almost purely Saxon, Anglian, and Dane….

The prosperity that followed the war attracted hordes of newcomers who were welcomed by the native Americans to operate factories, build railroads, and fill up the waste spaces — "developing the country" it was called.

These new immigrants were no longer exclusively members of the Nordic race as were the earlier ones who came of their own impulse to improve their social conditions. The transportation lines advertised America as a land flowing with milk and honey, and the European governments took the opportunity to unload upon careless, wealthy, and hospitable America the sweepings of their jails and asylums. The result was that the new immigration, while it still included many strong elements from the north of Europe, contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken, and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish Ghettos….

As to what the future mixture will be it is evident that in large sections of the country the native American will entirely disappear. He will not intermarry with inferior races, and he cannot compete in the sweat shop and in the street trench with the newcomers. Large cities from the days of Rome, Alexandria, and Byzantium have always been gathering points of diverse races, but New York is becoming a cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel.

In a widely-discussed 2009 essay for the New York Times, Brent Staples explored the relationship between white supremacy and the dehumanization of Black people in American society:  

Hitler found quite a bit to admire about this country during its apartheid period. Writing in the early 1930s, he attributed white domination of North America to the fact that the "Germanic" peoples here had resisted intermarriage with and held themselves apart from "inferior" peoples, including the Negroes, whom he described as "half-apes."

He was not alone in these sentiments. The effort to dehumanize Black people by characterizing them as apes is central to our national history. Thomas Jefferson made the connection in his notorious book "Notes on the State of Virginia," in which he asserted fantastically that male orangutans were sexually drawn to Negro women.

By defining Negroes not as human beings but as beasts, the nation rationalized subjugation and cruelty and justified laws that stripped them of basic human rights. The case for segregation itself rested heavily on the assertion that animal origins made Negroes feebleminded, smelly and intolerably offensive to white sensibilities.

From before the founding through to the present, America remains a society structured by race and racial inequality. Social scientists and other experts have repeatedly shown that Black and brown people's life opportunities are disadvantaged across almost every area of American society, when compared to white people as a group.

In all, the assumption that white people's lives are more valuable to society is like a kind of cultural oxygen. To challenge it with the assertion that "Black lives matter" is to invoke a rage and backlash so extreme that tens of millions of white Americans are willing to destroy their own democracy and society in a racist temper tantrum embodied by Trumpism and neofascism. 

RELATED: There is no "Putin wing" of the GOP: Why almost no Republican backs Ukraine over Russia

The news media and others with a public voice have a responsibility to make the world and its complex events more legible for the public at large. In a time of global democracy crisis, that responsibility is even more essential, and especially so when global stability is under threat by a war in Europe. To refuse to see race and the color line, and their impact on such events, is simply to deny reality.

In a recent essay for CNN, Peniel Joseph explored this global context:

The global crisis of racism, inequity and anti-immigrant xenophobia might seem secondary to the violence of the conflict in Ukraine but in truth, they are inextricable concerns. Russia's assault on Ukraine's sovereignty reflects the growing strength of autocratic leaders, such as Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro. Similarly, the treatment of African refugees in Ukraine in the context of war illustrates the xenophobia and racial intolerance that has fueled Brexit and aspects of the anti-globalization and nationalist movements that have flourished over the past decade.

One of the most important lessons of Russia's war against Ukraine is that the whole world continues to watch, respond to and take cues from not only American and Western power, but more tellingly, the power of our example. No single ethnic, racial or religious group has a greater capacity for civilization, personal dignity or citizenship than others. Now is the time to stand with all Ukrainians, immigrants and refugees seeking refuge from the storm of war.

The Ukraine conflict has complicated origins. But it is also clear that Vladimir Putin is a hero of the global right, which includes the various neofascists, white supremacists, racial chauvinists and allied forces who dream of creating a new "white Christian empire." Resisting and defeating Putin will weaken those forces as well, and strengthen both American and global democracy. That is a struggle that people of conscience on both sides of the color line should unite behind.

Read more on the Ukraine conflict and how we got here:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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