Space Aliens are real! And they are here!
I have always wanted to write a headline or lede like that one. I grew up listening to Art Bell's radio show, Coast to Coast AM, and devouring books and documentaries about extraterrestrials (especially Area 51 and Barney and Betty Hill). I also found those early internet message boards about alien visitations and Roswell to be very exciting places.
I am 100% certain that I once saw a ghost. Famed paranormal investigators the Warrens even confirmed it. But alas, I have never seen a UFO or extraterrestrials in the flesh. While I have always wanted to write a headline or lede announcing First Contact, it would seem that I will have to wait for some other time in the future — if ever — to do such a thing.
Whatever these "unknown" objects in the sky are, they most certainly are not "aliens" from another planet or dimension.
For the last few weeks, America has been experiencing a low-grade panic about "UFOs" (or as the military refers to them "UAPs") and a Chinese spy balloon. This national anxiety is not without cause or reason: over the course of the last week the U.S. military shot down several of these "UFOs" in a series of incidents over Alaska, Canada, and Lake Huron. The Chinese spy balloon was destroyed by the U.S. Air Force off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month.
The down-to-earth and mundane explanation for these "UFOs" is that they are balloons, drones, or some other manmade object under the control of a government (or unmentioned U.S. government agency), a corporation, university, or some other private organization or individual(s). Whatever these "unknown" objects in the sky are, they most certainly are not "aliens" from another planet or dimension.
On Thursday, President Biden told the nation that:
We don't yet know exactly what these three objects were but nothing right now suggests they were related to China's spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from ... any other country. The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were mostly balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research….
We don't have any evidence that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky. We're now just seeing more of them partially because [of] the steps we've taken to increase our radars, to narrow our radars. And we have to keep adapting our approach to dealing with these challenges.…
As I watched how our national UFO panic threatened to become a repeat of the Battle of Los Angeles, I immediately thought about legal scholar and attorney Derrick Bell and his provocative science fiction short story "The Space Traders." Published in 1992, "The Space Traders" explores racism and white supremacy and the very precarious citizenship and belonging that Black people are subjected to here in the United States. The book was also made into a 33-minute movie that was part of HBO's now cult classic film anthology "Cosmic Slop" in 1994.
Science fiction gains its power through speculation and taking the familiar and real and then upending it to reveal a deeper truth. In the case of "Space Traders," Bell's intervention is that in the year 2000 a fleet of UFOs appears and offers a bargain. The aliens will give the United States a free source of endless energy and heal the environment if America's leaders agree to give them all the African-Americans in the country. After much national debate, legislation is passed agreeing to the aliens' demands. In an obvious and intentional allusion to the transatlantic slave trade, Black Americans are then marched off into the hulls of the huge spaceships to an unknown fate.
Derrick Bell was one of the "founders" of critical race theory. "The Space Traders" is an example of one of the core principles of critical race theory (CRT) that the law should be made more transparent and decipherable by all people because the law is an extension of Power that impacts their lives. Storytelling, metaphors, and allowing more voices to share their subjective and personal experiences of power and society are necessary tools for creating real social democracy.
In their 1991 law journal article "Derrick Bell's Chronicle of the Space Traders: Would the U.S. Sacrifice People of Color if the Price were Right", Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic provide this context:
Legal storytelling is a means by which representatives of new communities may introduce their views into the dialogue about the way society should be governed. Stories are in many ways more powerful than litigation or brief-writing and may be necessary precursors to law reform. They offer insights into the particulars of lives lived at the margins of society, margins that are rapidly collapsing toward a disappearing center. This is not true just of our times. In Biblical history, storytellers for oppressed groups told tales of hope and struggle-for example, that of the Promised Land-to inspire and comfort the community during difficult times. Reality could be better-and, perhaps, will be.
Other storytellers have directed their attention to the oppressors, reminding them of a day when they would be called to account." Stories thus perform multiple functions, allowing us to uncover a more layered reality than is immediately apparent: a refracted one that the legal system must confront. Until recently, law has aimed for consistency, for the "rule of law."
Today we are beginning to realize that this universality was false, that it perpetrated exclusion."' It cohered only by ignoring certain experiences, stories, and viewpoints. Today, these experiences and viewpoints are moving from the periphery to the center. Storytelling is one of the vehicles that propels this movement.
Bell is now much more widely known outside of the relatively small number of academics and other experts and activists who were influenced by his scholarship, teaching, and mentoring because of his association with the white supremacist bogeyman "critical race theory." In reality, CRT is a very narrow and specialized field of study and theoretical framework that is almost exclusively taught at the advanced college, graduate and post-graduate level. CRT's premise is basic and self-evident to any thinking and reasonable person who has even a passing knowledge of American society: This society (and the West) is structured around institutional and systemic racism and other forms of inequality. The law is not neutral – and cannot ever be truly neutral – because it reflects those broader dynamics of power.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Bell began his legal career in the 1950s as a civil-rights attorney and later worked under Thurgood Marshall, but his best-known legacy is the early inspiration for what became known as "critical race theory," or CRT—a discipline that applies a critical lens to legal statutes and precedents, considering not just the words on the page but the context in which they were drafted.
"From the perspective of critical race theory, some positions have historically been oppressed, distorted, ignored, silenced, destroyed, appropriated, commodified, and marginalized—and all of this, not accidentally. Conversely, the law simultaneously and systematically privileges subjects who are white," Bell said during a 1995 speech at the University of Illinois in which he said CRT's aim is "to empower and include traditionally excluded views and see all-inclusiveness as the ideal because of our belief in collective wisdom."
In the decade or so since his death, Bell's work has been subject to a steady stream of histrionics. The term critical race theory is now applied to any teaching on race that conservatives believe will upset white Americans. Critics claim that critical race theory is a form of "racial essentialism," although it is, in fact, the opposite. CRT seeks to understand how intersecting identities factor into someone's experience with our legal edicts and societal norms. It does not suppose that individuals can be defined solely by those identities. The aim is a country in which humans equally created are actually treated as such; that's only achievable by understanding how the social concept of race continues to shape the American experience.
In the Age of Trump, CRT is now a type of empty signifier that the Republican fascists use to advance their project of scaring white people (and others invested in Whiteness) in order to gain power across the country as part of a larger project of ending multiracial democracy. To be certain, none of this is new. Republicans attacked President Barack Obama based on his association with Professor Bell while a student at Harvard Law. Now Republican leaders like Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbot in Texas are using a moral panic about "critical race theory" as a way of instituting Orwellian Thought Crime laws where they censor books, monitor, harass and then fire teachers, librarians, and other educators.
Just as with the UFOs and balloons and the other many thousands of unidentified things in the sky at any given moment, Republican fascists and their forces are projecting their beliefs onto "critical race theory" as a way of advancing their own personal agendas.
These lie-filled, disingenuous attacks on "critical race theory" are designed to create an environment of threat and trauma for Black people and others who are targeted as "un-American" because they "scare" the "good white people" that DeSantis, Abbott and the other Republican-fascists have declared themselves the defenders of. Teachers, one Texas principal recently noted, "are scared to let their students decorate their doors for Black History Month because they are scared the board is going to label them as 'woke.'"
Just as with the UFOs and balloons and the other many thousands of unidentified things in the sky at any given moment, Republican fascists and their forces are projecting their beliefs onto "critical race theory" as a way of advancing their own personal agendas. There is no "there there" with the "critical race theory" bogeyman. But facts and reality and the truth are not the ultimate point; scaring ignorant, gullible, and racist white people and feeding off of that dark energy as a way of getting more corrupt power in service to a fascist revolutionary political project is all that matters.
In addition to "The Space Traders", I have also been thinking a lot about Rod Serling's Twilight Zone TV series and its classic episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," which aired in 1960. In that episode, space aliens create chaos in one neighborhood as a way of testing how easy it is to manipulate human beings through paranoia and fear. The real monsters on Maple Street are not the aliens but rather the "good white suburbanites" who are running amok and attacking each other. At the end of the episode one of the aliens explains their plan. "Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other...one to the other...one to the other--"
"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" closes with Rod Serling, the narrator, sharing the following wisdom with the audience:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices - to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children...the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is...that these things cannot be confined to...The Twilight Zone!
Rod Serling's wisdom and warning were as true at the height of the Cold War and Red Scare (and the Lavender Scare and COINTELPRO) as they are today with the Republican fascists and their white supremacist "critical race theory" moral panic.