Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his. Watch CNN’s “Distorting the Truth,” about how a Russian government-linked group exploited the death of Philando Castile, on CNNgo.
The news that Russian hackers, in the wake of the police shooting death of Philando Castile, sought to exploit increasing racial divisions in America through a social media campaign of disinformation should come as no surprise. Historically, both during and after the Cold War, the Russian state has tried to use America’s tragic history of racial violence and segregation for its own political purposes.
In some chapters of American history, the commingling of Russian state action and American racial politics has unfolded in the open, with the consequences fully obvious for all to see. In an era before Black Lives Matter, communists at times provided the most full-throated and unequivocal defense of black humanity even if this defense was at times used in service of international propaganda against the United States.
So contemporary Russian trolls who set up a phony Facebook account – complete with a planned demonstration – in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s 2016 death at the hands of a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota, entered this long and complex history. Where in the past the Soviet Union touted itself as a state free of racial discrimination and attracted tiny numbers of blacks like Paul Robeson to tour the country and at times live there, Russia’s post-Cold War state of “managed democracy” offers no such illusions. Instead, the Russian project under President Vladimir Putin seeks to destabilize American democracy by turning the nation’s inner demons against itself.
During the Great Depression era, the Soviet Union trumpeted naked displays of Jim Crow injustice as proof of the insincerity of American claims of freedom and democracy. The unjust imprisonment of nine African-American boys and young men in Scottsboro, Alabama, on the false charge of raping two white women on a train in 1931 became a major propaganda victory for the Communist Party (which also helped garner much needed legal, financial, and moral support for the innocent black defendants at a moment when mainstream civil rights groups looked the other way).
During the height of the Cold War, Communist interest in black lives rested on a Janus-faced platform. On the one hand, genuinely sincere American Communists truly believed in Marxism as a vehicle for racial equality. White American Communists affirmed this belief to the point of (in some cases) risking injury or death by organizing interracial unions, crossing the color line in the North and South, and marrying African-Americans when it was illegal to do so. For these true believers, dismantling racism and white supremacy held the key to eradicating the political and economic horrors unleashed by global capitalism.
On the other hand, Russian Communist officials, apparatchiks, and newspapers saw in America’s unfolding racial crisis an opportunity to shield the Soviet Union from criticism of its own human rights violations, creeping authoritarianism, and barely concealed imperial ambitions.
The Cold War that unfolded in the Second World War’s aftermath is sometimes narrated as an ideological conflict between liberal democratic capitalism and Soviet-styled communism. President Ronald Reagan boiled it down to a battle between good and evil. In truth, hearts and minds mattered as much as ideology, perhaps even more so during the unfurling age of African and Third World decolonization.
The Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson administrations governed America during some of the Cold War’s hottest years. Over the course of these two decades, the United States developed its own sophisticated brand of racial propaganda to counter the real and sometime imagined narratives of the Soviets. The State Department, United States Information Agency, and a whole slew of federal agencies organized international trips, jazz tours, and publicized racial breakthroughs commonly referred to as “Negro Firsts” – to tout racial progress in America.
At the same time, President Kennedy said this during a televised June 11, 1963 speech to the nation on race matters: “Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free… And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only.”
On national television, amidst a roiling spring and summer of racial discontent that coincided with the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Kennedy admitted by implication that the completion of the American project of liberty, freedom, and democracy required racial justice for African-Americans.
It remained so then, and though the landscape has changed, it remains incomplete today. And unlike other previous Russian propaganda or hacking targets like the 1984 Olympic Games (where the KGB sent forged racist letters in the name of the KKK to athletes from African and Asian nations), the Democratic National Committee, or the 2016 presidential elections, local grassroots groups and social media-driven activist networks lack the resources and infrastructure to anticipate being targeted in advance or respond in effective ways, if they ever even realize they’ve been targeted.
Russian attempts to utilize social media to discredit, manipulate, or derail the Black Lives Matter movement underscores the vulnerability of domestic social justice movements that continue find themselves, as they have been in the past, under government surveillance, closely watched and at times harassed by law enforcement, scapegoated by far right and conservative opponents, and exploited by trolls seeking to undermine American democracy.
The at times illegal harassment and surveillance of black activist groups by local and federal law enforcement also buttressed charges by the Soviet Union that racial discrimination continued to haunt American democracy. FBI informants famously infiltrated the Black Panthers in the 1960s, effectively crippling a group poised to become a major force in American society. Major Panther leaders were arrested on trumped up charges, misled into attacking rival Black Power organizations, and in some instances, shot and killed at the hands of law enforcement officials given a virtual green light to assault the group by the FBI. One informant provided the Chicago Police with precise information that resulted in the shocking death of charismatic Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.
So in the same manner that civil rights and Black Power groups from the 1960s faced illegal wiretapping, surveillance, and infiltration via the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program aimed at domestic radicals, contemporary anti-racist activists are being targeted by Russian hackers in an effort to discredit their important work.
And yet, for all the historical parallels, several sobering truths abound with warning signs for the future.
The most glaringly obvious is the fact that Russian interference in the 2016 election may have tipped the balance in favor of President Trump, whose well-articulated racist views have gone a long way toward crippling America’s reputation at home and abroad. Tellingly, Trump first made a name for himself by advocating the death penalty for defendants in the Central Park Five jogger trial, a case with bitter echoes of the Scottsboro Boys, complete with exonerations bestowed only after collective decades in prison.
America’s collective inability to confront anti-black racism makes us especially vulnerable online to the very forces of external manipulation that cold warriors railed against in an earlier generation.
Last, and most important, the path toward racial justice remains in front of us, just as it did during the Cold War era, waiting to be claimed as the beating heart of American democracy. A nation that invests in children over walls, that sees borders as opportunities for engagement rather than sites of separation, and that recognizes racial justice as a core American value can never be manipulated by external threats.