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New Method, Same Strategy: Russia Has Long Exploited U.S. Racial Divisions

Russia has a long history of highlighting the reality of racial injustice in this country.

This article was cross-posted from Just Secur­ity.

As the coun­try prepares for the first national elec­tion since evid­ence emerged of the Russian govern­ment’s inter­fer­ence in the pres­id­en­tial race two years ago, it is worth recall­ing that the 2016 elec­tion was not the first time that Russia inter­vened in U.S. polit­ics. Recent Russian oper­a­tions used Amer­ican racism to stoke divi­sions in our soci­ety. More than half of the Face­book advert­ise­ments created by the Krem­lin-backed Inter­net Research Agency (IRA) to influ­ence Amer­ic­ans around the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion refer­enced race. While the use of social media is new, Russia has a long history of high­light­ing the conflict between Amer­ican ideals of equal­ity and the real­ity of racial injustice in this coun­try. This history provides import­ant context as the U.S. grapples with how to respond to the contin­ued threat of Russian govern­ment inter­fer­ence in our demo­cracy.

At first, Soviet concern with U.S. racial inequal­ity was rooted in the belief that capit­al­ism could only be defeated by the united efforts of the work­ing classes of all nations. African Amer­ic­ans, the Soviet lead­er­ship decided in 1928, had the greatest revolu­tion­ary poten­tial and were there­fore essen­tial for achiev­ing world­wide Commun­ism. Inter­pret­ing racism and capit­al­ism as closely-related obstacles to liber­a­tion, the Soviet lead­er­ship adop­ted an offi­cial policy of “anti-racism.” From Moscow, the increased perse­cu­tion that African Amer­ic­ans suffered during the Depres­sion was deemed an attack on the Soviet inter­na­tional project, a threat to Soviet national secur­ity.

When an all-white jury falsely convicted nine black teen­agers of rape in Scott­s­boro, Alabama, in 1931, the USSR’s Inter­na­tional Red Aid (IRA) organ­ized an inter­na­tional campaign to liber­ate the “Scott­s­boro Boys.” Like the Inter­net Research Agency, the earlier IRA planned protests, distrib­uted news and polit­ical mater­i­als, and adop­ted the rhet­oric of Amer­ican activ­ists, mask­ing the true foreign source of their campaign. Many Amer­ican observ­ers cred­ited the post-trial wave of protests — some orches­trated by the IRA, others more spon­tan­eous — with pres­sur­ing the Alabama Supreme Court to agree to hear the defend­ants’ appeal. Though South­ern conser­vat­ives typic­ally denounced civil rights activ­ism as Commun­ist, the general public under­stood the Scott­s­boro campaign in the context of ongo­ing anti-Jim Crow advocacy, not Soviet inter­fer­ence.

Soviet race-related propa­ganda changed after World War II. As the U.S. and the USSR competed for influ­ence over newly inde­pend­ent nations in Asia and Africa, Soviet influ­ence campaigns aimed to dissuade these coun­tries from align­ing with the U.S. by publi­ciz­ing Amer­ican racism, assert­ing the fail­ure of Amer­ican demo­cracy and the superi­or­ity of the USSR. As Mohan­das Gandhi observed in a letter to Pres­id­ent Frank­lin Roosevelt,

“mak[ing] the world safe for free­dom of the indi­vidual and for demo­cracy sounds hollow, so long as […] Amer­ica has the Negro prob­lem in her own home.”

During the Cold War, Amer­ican lead­ers made refut­ing the Soviet narrat­ive about Amer­ican racism a national secur­ity issue, crit­ical for main­tain­ing U.S. inter­na­tional lead­er­ship and promot­ing rela­tion­ships with what was then called the Third World. The Truman and Eisen­hower admin­is­tra­tions consist­ently advanced national secur­ity argu­ments for ending legal discrim­in­a­tion. For example, the govern­ment’s 1952 amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Educa­tion argued that

“racial discrim­in­a­tion … has an adverse effect upon our rela­tions with other coun­tries. Racial discrim­in­a­tion [has] furnished grist for the Commun­ist propa­ganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intens­ity of our devo­tion to the demo­cratic faith.”

The Truman and Eisen­hower admin­is­tra­tions hoped that by strik­ing down segreg­a­tion, the Court would demon­strate that racial equal­ity had always been part of U.S. consti­tu­tional values. The public rela­tions value of Brown was clear; imme­di­ately after the Supreme Court held that school segreg­a­tion viol­ated the Consti­tu­tion, the Voice of Amer­ica announced the decision in 34 languages world­wide.

Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrat­ive about Amer­ican racism were under­cut by the fact that Soviet propa­ganda typic­ally involved the reprint­ing and distri­bu­tion of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Sovi­ets show­cased Amer­ican news outlets’ photo­graphs of black protest­ers being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birm­ing­ham in 1963. In 2016, many Inter­net Research Agency social media accounts used the same strategy, ampli­fy­ing reput­able U.S. news sources through retweets and shares. In fact, the top seven news sources shared by IRA-accounts included The Wash­ing­ton Post, the San Fran­cisco Chron­icle, and The Hill.

The USSR also engaged in disin­form­a­tion campaigns during the Cold War and — as in 2016 — that some­times seemed to promote multiple sides of an issue, as well as conspir­acy theor­ies. In the 1960s, just as the propa­ganda arm of the Soviet Union was high­light­ing racism in the U.S., the KGB, the Russian intel­li­gence agency, attemp­ted to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., by portray­ing him as an “Uncle Tom” who was secretly receiv­ing govern­ment subsidies. Simil­arly, in 2016, some IRA Twit­ter accounts mimicked the rhet­oric of the Black Lives Matter move­ment, while others broad­cas­ted right-wing nativ­ist messages. Russian trolls even organ­ized a protest and simul­tan­eous counter-protest of the open­ing of an Islamic Center in Hous­ton, taking advant­age of Amer­ican Islamo­pho­bia. In the 1980s, the Soviet govern­ment promoted the false news story that the AIDS virus was manu­fac­tured by Amer­ican biolo­gical warfare special­ists in Mary­land. In 2016, Russian social media accounts promoted the Pizza­g­ate and Uranium One conspir­acy theor­ies.

In 2016, the Russi­ans used well-tried tactics to directly inter­fere in our demo­cracy and may even have engin­eered a specific elect­oral outcome: a Trump victory. These activ­it­ies require a firm response from the United States. At the same time, we cannot avoid the real­ity that in many respects the Inter­net Research Agency, like the Inter­na­tional Red Aid of the 1930s, drew upon pre-exist­ing, press­ing issues of racial inequal­ity that are deeply embed­ded in the fabric of U.S. soci­ety. With or without Russian inter­fer­ence, these issues will continue to shape the outcomes of our elec­tions.

(Image: Marshall Red/Shut­ter­stock)