Although the protests against racial injustice in the United States have become less intense and infrequent, they have not entirely faded. Against this background, negative opinion about the Black Lives Matter movement is widespread in Ukraine. This is often due to a lack of understanding about what is really happening in the United States.
First of all, in Ukraine, only the movement’s illegal activities attract public attention. However, the Black Lives Matter protests do not always lead to arson or looting. A few days ago, The Washington Post published a report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data, which said that “in more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity.”*
Accordingly, only 7% of the riots have been violent.
But can anyone think of these protests as peaceful after watching television broadcasts? At the same time, the recent tragic events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, have demonstrated that those 7% should not be neglected either. The Black Lives Matter protests have brought together other civil rights movements that create incentives for the use of arms and make the current confrontation between the police and protesters even more dangerous.
The press plays its part in drawing public attention to the violence. The media tend to focus on the drama at these protests rather than on the generally peaceful nature of the events. This is the nature of news reporting around the world. In trying to inject drama into the news feed, the media look for colorful and sensational images. That is why the media do not report on peaceful demonstrations, but rather the riots, arson and looting.
Strangely enough, many of us see these protests as a sign of America’s weakness and that of its society. However, the protests may be seen through a different lens. These protests reflect the maturity of a society, a willingness to improve its domestic structures and to speak out about current problems. The protests reflect pluralism and society’s concern for the fate of its country.
It is surprising that Ukrainians, many of whom are so proud of two relatively recent Maidan revolutions, do not support the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. **
It is obvious that many of us tend to see events through the prism of a rigid dichotomy between order and anarchy, and adhere to only one of these two tenets.
First, between totalitarian rule, which forbids any showing of social activism, and complete anarchy, there are many other moderate forms of government.
Second, one needs to consider whether a country’s laws are based on justice, or whether some need to be changed.
In fact, there is a conflict between conservatives, who defend the status quo, and progressives and/or liberals, who insist on continuous social improvement. Such confrontation is taking place not only in America, but also in other countries around the world, including Ukraine.
We should recognize that racism is still widespread in our society. Some people openly admit to being racist, while others, without even realizing it, are racists on a subconscious level.
Obviously, the definition of racism depends on a number of criteria. Being a racist does not necessarily mean one believes in white supremacy, or that one thinks of Black people as second-class citizens, and puts them in cages or in a setting of palm trees. There are many other more veiled forms of racism. Quite often, people who claim not to be racist use language that proves exactly the opposite.
This racism finds its roots in the Soviet era. On the one hand, criticizing America for discrimination against Black people was part of Soviet propaganda during the ideological battles of the Cold War. At the same time, Soviet society was segregated and monoracial. Xenophobia was a phenomenon of the times.
As a result, when former Soviet citizens immigrated to America, they brought their racism with them. Rejecting multiculturalism, they could not or did not choose to adapt to a multifaceted society. Hence, there arose the practice of stereotyping Black people as lazy, aggressive and perennially criminal. And many of us, willing to believe this misconception as reality, reason that those who live there know best.
There is a common belief that African Americans have wonderful lives in the United States, and that no one discriminates against them, so what else could they want?
Again, the basic reason for this false conviction is our lack of information about the issue.
It is understandable, because there is only scant news coverage of civil rights violations against Black Americans reaching our screens. And besides, we have our own issues to worry about.
In contrast, many, if not all Americans live with nonstop news about this issue.
Second, there have been some positive developments in addressing racial issues, education and employment in the United States for a period of time. Many African Americans have found good career opportunities, which have even led to the presidency.
Thus, one might say that African Americans live better today than they did during the days of lynching and racial segregation, not to mention slavery. But there are still many problems.
Third, we certainly idealize America. Having considerable affection for the United States, this writer has tried to counter negative stereotypes and clichés about this country for many years. However, in order to know a country, one needs to know its weaknesses.
Perhaps the most vivid example of why this is important is the public perception of law enforcement. We often accuse our law enforcement of incompetence and corruption, and see American institutions as faultless, which is not always true.
Finally, there are a number of specific examples of the distorted perception of the protests in the United States. For example, many wonder why George Floyd’s death has sparked protest in the United States.
Many believe that Floyd’s criminal past branded the Black Lives Matter movement. In reality, his painful death captured on video footage was just the last straw.
This has happened many times before, and is happening now. These protests are not about one particular person, Floyd, but about numerous people like him.
That is why in Ukraine many see the slogan as “only Black Lives Matter,” while the message is “Black Lives Matter, too.”
Some people do not support the protesters on the basis of their alleged connections to left-leaning radical movements. The slogans of class struggle often overlap with, but are not limited to the demands of the movement.
People have disseminated videos of white people washing the feet of Black protesters or kissing their shoes.
In fact, a Black supremacist organization, the Black Hebrew Israelites, stands in the background of these images that show white civilians voluntarily participating. Still, these cases are rare.
The tradition of taking a knee, which many interpret as a ritual of humiliation, is actually the exact opposite; a ritual of tribute. To honor the victims of racism, people participate in this ritual willingly and not at gunpoint.
As we can see, unreliable and completely distorted information about racial protests in the United States is still widely prevalent in Ukraine. This is a problem that needs to be recognized as such.
The author, Vladimir Dubovik, is director of the Center of International Studies, and associate professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odessa.
* Translator’s note: The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project is a nongovernmental organization specializing in disaggregated data collection, analysis and crisis mapping.
**Translator’s note: The Orange Revolution took place in 2004, and the Honor Revolution took place in 2013. Both protests began on the Maidan, which is the central square in Kyiv.
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