Black Lives Should Also Matter in the Russia-Ukraine War
Black Americans have enjoyed an enduring bond with Africa and their brothers and sisters living on the Continent, with many U.S.-based civil rights agencies, clergy members, and African American organizations taking a keen interest in the welfare of citizens in the 55-nation motherland.
While the world watched Russia invade Ukraine on Thursday, February 24, some expressed concern about the tens of thousands of international students studying in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other cities throughout that Eastern European nation.
Many of those students come from Africa.
“Many of them do not have paperwork to enter Europe,” wrote Terrell J. Starr, host of the Black Diplomats Podcast that focuses on the intersection of race and foreign policy.
Starr also counts as a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, focusing on Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, and nuclear non-proliferation issues.
Starr notes the especially perilous position facing African students and Black Ukrainians in an op-ed.
“There is no census data on their numbers, but figures range from thousands to tens of thousands,” Starr wrote.
“It is impossible to know without data, but it is not uncommon to see Black folks walking around Kyiv speaking fluent Russian or Ukrainian and walking with their white family members,” he continued.
Starr added that his friend, a Black Ukrainian, shared that, while she is proud to be Black, she feels the trauma of the Kremlin’s aggression as much as any white Ukrainian.
“Like America, Russia is a settler-colonial state, and we as Black folks need to understand how leaders of such states operate because we aren’t that far behind when it comes to being on the lower end of the totem pole of racial oppression,” Starr concluded.
“Yes, in America, Ukrainians are white. But over here, many of my Ukrainian friends tell me Putin and Russians who think like him view them as white trash. So many Ukrainians very much see themselves through the lens of race when it comes to Putin’s revisionism of their shared history.”
While multiple reports suggest Ukraine has never championed diversity or an acceptance of Black people, Russia has been especially harsh toward individuals of darker hues.
Home to 144 million people, just 70,000 Russian residents identify as Black.
The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based advocacy organization, revealed that Africans and those who descend from the Continent face widespread hostility and racism that routinely goes unpunished.
“We would note one racist action on the territory of Moscow State University of Civil Engineering,” SOVA Center officials wrote in January. “In a video circulated online, young people can be seen harassing Black students, throwing snowballs at them, ‘awarding’ them bananas as ‘gifts’ and insulting them generally.”
In 2021, the SOVA Center reported at least 63 victims of ideologically motivated violence; three of them died, and the others were injured or beaten; five people received serious death threats.
The total number of hate-motivated attacks had increased compared to the previous year when one victim died, and 52 were injured or beaten. “And what should be kept in mind is that our data, especially for the year that just ended, is incomplete and will inevitably increase,” SOVA Center officials noted.
“The figures we provide do not reflect the true scale of violence and are incomplete to a significant extent,” officials continued.
“The mass media provide the lion’s share of information about such crimes, but in recent years they have reported practically nothing about hate crimes or have described them in such a way that isolating a motive becomes difficult.”
Victims rarely report attacks to human rights organizations, except in the hope of receiving legal, medical, educational, or financial assistance, officials concluded.
They also rarely inform police out of fear of reprisals.
With Russia’s Ukraine invasion ongoing, some will train their eyes on the plight of Black people in the region.
“Anytime I am asked why Black people should care about anything that is considered non-Black, I refer them to Malcolm X’s call to condemn the U.S. at the United Nations for its abuses against Black Americans,” Starr wrote.
“Even a highly pro-Black activist like Malcolm knew the power of solidarity. I suggest we follow his lead as it pertains to Ukraine because colonial conquest of any nation should alarm us all—be it by Russia or even our native United States.”