The History of Russian Involvement in America’s Race Wars – Julia Ioffe | The Atlantic

The History of Russian Involvement in America’s Race Wars

From propaganda posters to Facebook ads, 80-plus years of Russian meddling.

Julia Ioffe | The Atlantic

According to a spate of recent reports, accounts tied to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency — a Russian “troll factory” — used social media and Google during the 2016 electoral campaign to deepen political and racial tensions in the United States of America.

The trolls, according to an interview with the Russian TV network TV Rain, were directed to focus their tweets and comments on socially divisive issues, like guns.

But another consistent theme has been Russian trolls focusing on issues of race. Some of the Russian ads placed on Facebook apparently targeted Ferguson and Baltimore, which were rocked by protests after police killings of unarmed black men; another showed a black woman firing a rifle. Other ads played on fears of illegal immigrants and Muslims, and groups like Black Lives Matter.  

Except for the technology used, however, these tactics are not exactly new. They are natural outgrowths of a central component of covert influence campaigns, like the one Russia launched against the United States during the 2016 election:

Make discord louder; divide and conquer. “Covert influence campaigns don’t create divisions on the ground, they amplify divisions on the ground,” says Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and then became CIA director.

During the Cold War, the Kremlin similarly sought to plant fake news and foment discontent, but was limited by the low-tech methods available at the time. “Before, the Soviets would plant information in Indian papers and hope it would get picked up by our papers,” says John Sipher, who ran the CIA’s Russia desk during George W. Bush’s first term. The Soviets planted misinformation about the AIDs epidemic as a Pentagon creation, according to Sipher, as well as the very concept of a nuclear winter. “Now, because of the technology, you can jump right in,” Sipher says.

Neither is playing on racial tensions inside the United States a new Russian tactic. In fact, it predates even the Cold War. In 1932, for instance, Dmitri Moor, the Soviet Union’s most famous propaganda poster artist, created a poster that cried, “Freedom to the Prisoners of Scottsboro!” It was a reference to the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, and then repeatedly — wrongly — convicted by all-white Southern juries. The case became a symbol of the injustices of the Jim Crow South, and the young Soviet state milked it for all the propagandistic value it could.

It was part of a plan put in place in 1928 by the Comintern — the Communist International, whose mission was to spread the communist revolution around the world. The plan initially called for recruiting Southern blacks and pushing for “self-determination in the Black Belt.”

By 1930, the Comintern had escalated the aims of its covert mission, and decided to work toward establishing a separate black state in the South, which would provide it with a beachhead for spreading the revolution to North America.

The Soviets also exploited the oppression of Southern blacks for their own economic benefit. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the Soviet Union was positioning itself not only as a workers’ utopia, but as a racial utopia as well, one where ethnic, national, and religious divisions didn’t exist.

In addition to luring thousands of white American workers, it brought over African-American workers and sharecroppers with the promise of the freedom to work and live unburdened by the violent restrictions of Jim Crow.

In return, they would help the Soviets build their fledgling cotton industry in Central Asia. Several hundred answered the call, and though many eventually went back — or died in the Gulag — some of their descendants remain in Russia. One of Russia’s best-known television hosts, for instance, is Yelena Khanga, the granddaughter of Oliver Golden, an agronomist from Tuskeegee University who moved with his communist Jewish-American wife to Uzbekistan to develop the cotton industry there.

The beginning of the Cold War coincided with the beginning of the civil rights movement, and the two became intertwined — both in how the Soviets used the racial strife, and how the Cold War propelled the cause of civil rights forward.

“Early on in the Cold War, there was a recognition that the U.S.A. couldn’t lead the world if it was seen as repressing people of color,” says Mary Dudziak, a legal historian at Emory, whose book Cold War Civil Rights is the seminal work on the topic. When, in September 1957, the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus deployed the National Guard to keep nine black students from integrating the Central High School in Little Rock, the standoff was covered by newspapers around the world, many of which noted the discrepancy between the values America expressed and hoped to spread around the world, and how it implemented them at home.

The Soviets, again, took full advantage of the opportunity. Komsomolskaya Pravda, the newspaper of the communist youth organization in the USSR, ran a sensational story, complete with photographs, about the conflict under the headline, “Troops Advance Against Children!” [in the U.S.A.]

Izvestia, the second main Soviet daily, also extensively covered the Little Rock crisis, noting at one point that “right now, behind the facade of the so-called ‘American democracy,’ a tragedy is unfolding which cannot but arouse ire and indignation in the heart of every honest man.” The story went on:

The patrons of Governor Faubus … who dream of nooses and dynamite for persons with different-colored skins, advocates of hooliganism who throw rocks at defenseless Negro children — these gentlemen have the audacity to talk about “democracy” and speak as supporters of “freedom.” In fact it is impossible to imagine a greater insult to democracy and freedom than an American diplomat’s speech from the tribunal of the U.S.A. General Assembly, a speech in which Washington was pictured as the “champion” of the rights of the Hungarian people.

The point then, as it was in 2016, was to discredit the American system, to keep the Soviets (and, later, Russians) loyal to their own system instead of hungering for Western-style democracy. But it was also used in Soviet propaganda around the world for a similar purpose. Sometimes, in Pravda, all they needed to do was to reprint something that appeared in Time Magazine. Just the facts would themselves inflame international opinion. On top of that, the Soviets would push the envelope.

This came at a critical time for the United States. After World War II, the U.S.A. was a new global power locked in an ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. As the United States tried to convince countries to join its sphere by taking up democracy and liberal values, the U.S.A. government was competing with the Soviets in parts of the world where images of white cops turning fire hoses and attack dogs on black protesters did not sit well — especially considering that this was coinciding with the wave of African countries declaring independence from white colonial rulers.

“Here at the United Nations I can see clearly the harm that the riots in Little Rock are doing to our foreign relations,” Henry Cabot Lodge, then the U.S. ambassador to the UN, wrote to President Eisenhower in 1957. “More than two-thirds of the world is non-white and the reactions of the representatives of these people is easy to see. I suspect that we lost several votes on the Chinese communist item because of Little Rock.”

“The Russian objective then was to disrupt U.S. international relations and undermine U.S. power in the world, and undermine the appeal of U.S. democracy to other countries,” says Dudziak, and Lodge was reflecting a central concern at the State Department at the time:

The Soviet propaganda was working. American diplomats were reporting back both their chagrin and the difficulty of preaching democracy when images of the violence around the civil rights movement were reported all over the world, and amplified by Soviet or communist propaganda.

On a trip to Latin America, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife were met with protestors chanting, “Little Rock! Little Rock!” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained that “this situation was ruining our foreign policy. The effect of this in Asia and Africa will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians.”

Ultimately, he prevailed on Eisenhower to insert a passage into his national address on Little Rock that directly addressed the discrepancy that Soviet propaganda was highlighting — and spinning as American hypocrisy. Whenever the Soviet Union was criticized for its human rights abuses, the rebuttal became, “And you lynch Negroes.”

Moscow never abandoned these tactics, which became known as “whataboutism,” even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian propaganda outlets like Russia Today — now known as RT — have always focused on domestic strife in the United States of America, be it homelessness or Occupy Wall Street or the Ferguson protests.

The Facebook ads focusing on divisive issues like Black Lives Matter are just another page from the old Soviet handbook. The difference this time is that the Russians got better at penetrating the American discussions on these fraught subjects. They became a more effective bellows, amplifying the fire Americans built.

The good news, though, is that America can do things to disarm the propaganda. In the 1950s and 60s, for example, this was one of the reasons that American presidents pushed through various civil rights victories, culminating in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

This time, Americans can stop blaming the Russians and look at ourselves for what we do to fan the flames — to a far greater extent than the Russians ever could or do. “If there’s anyone to blame, it’s us,” says Sipher. “If we accept the stoking, it’s our fault.”

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  • Clyde Duncan  On October 24, 2017 at 12:29 am

    How the Soviets Used Our Civil Rights Conflicts Against Us

    Rebecca Onion | Slate / The Vault

    The Vault is Slate’s new history blog.

    The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum recently digitized a portion of the Kennedy administration’s national security files. Among these papers was this June 1963 memo that summarizes Soviet media coverage of the growing American conflicts over civil rights.

    These Soviet broadcasts, which reached audiences in Asia, Africa, and South America, tried to turn global public opinion against the United States of America.

    The memo, compiled by Thomas Hughes, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, saw an increase in volume of such Soviet broadcasts in the spring of 1963.

    That spring, after Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., during the first widely televised protests and sit-ins, activists staged 758 demonstrations in 75 Southern cities.

    A few major arguments of these broadcasts, as Hughes summarized them:

    Capitalism provided a natural environment for racism, which would never end so long as the American system needed cheap labor. The federal government’s policy of limited intervention in Southern conflicts was tantamount to support of Southern racism.

    The United States of America could not claim to be the leader of the free world while hypocritically refusing to support civil rights within its borders.

    In the most politically damaging line of reasoning, Soviet broadcasters argued that American domestic policy toward its black citizens was “indicative of its policy toward peoples of color throughout the world.” Emerging African, Asian, and South American nations, in other words, should not count on Americans to support their independence.

    On the fourth page of the memo, Hughes argued that the Soviets had their own PR problem when it came to treatment of ethnic and racial minorities within their borders facing, for example, ongoing accusations of anti-Semitism in the world press.

    Hughes thought that Soviets might be trying to distract from recent negative coverage of their own internal conflicts by pointing a finger at the United States.

    Previously on The Vault:
    An August 1963 film, produced by the U.S. Information Agency for foreign distribution, that featured actors Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and James Baldwin in conversation on the meaning of civil rights.

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 24, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    What Makes President Trump Casually Dismiss Black Pain? – White Rage.

    Jamil Smith | The Washington Post

    White anger is the dark matter of the La David Johnson story. Ostensibly, that rage doesn’t appear to be why President Trump has spent a week disrespecting grieving black women, specifically Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), the congresswoman whom she considers to be like family.

    But while we can’t see it in the daily news coverage, we see its effects:

    White rage’s gravity is warping not only what should be a solemn, yet perfunctory, duty for a president but also pulling whiteness back to the center of a story that should be about only a young black widow and her two children, with a third on the way.

    We’ve been talking too much about white people and their anger since Trump started running for president, really.

    The white resentment that unmasked itself during the Obama era, sparked by the tea party and Trump’s birther crusade, had been pretty obvious even before the predominantly white media devoted legions of stories to it over the past couple of years in a fit of “Hillbilly Elegy” curiosity.

    It seemed apparent to people of color that this was the mysterious malady that caused people to support Trump; the press, in the manner of Christopher Columbus, would eventually discover it, too.

    Much less energy was devoted to, say, examining black anger about racial injustice and other issues. That’s partly why the president was able to get so many (mostly white) Americans to believe the fiction that kneeling athletes were Betsy Ross blasphemers.

    Those attitudes give Trump license to make targets of outspoken sports commentators and various members of Congress — especially if they’re women of color, his favorite opponents.

    The act of not believing black folks or performing confusion about our anger has social currency as well, since it makes it look as though we are all crying wolf.

    Even when we’re talking about a pregnant military widow, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire American story.

    I don’t seek to invalidate the animus of Trump voters, much as it is often directed unfairly at people who look like me. What I want is to decenter white cultural rage.

    There are additional, and more justified, reasons to be angry in America — such as the president calling you a liar right after you’ve buried your soldier husband, killed in action for reasons yet to be determined.

    Sgt. La David Johnson was one of four Army soldiers who died on Oct. 4 in Niger, reportedly the victims of an Islamic State ambush. I qualify that a bit only because the Pentagon doesn’t seem to know why these men died — especially Johnson, who was separated from the rest and not found for 48 hours after the initial attack.

    Myeshia Johnson was not allowed to see any part of her husband’s body, and Saturday’s funeral was closed-casket. There are very serious questions for the Trump administration to answer here.

    That’s even before we consider how badly Trump later treated her during his condolence call, apparently not remembering La David Johnson’s name and telling her callously that “he knew what he signed up for.”

    On Monday morning, Myeshia Johnson went on the record. Recounting what the president said, the widow told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “it made me cry cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”

    She also confirmed the damning account that both Wilson and La David Johnson’s custodial mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, had given of the phone conversation she had with the president.

    “Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated,” she said during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “What she said was 100 percent correct. It was Master Sgt. Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle and the driver and Ms. Wilson in the car, the phone was on speakerphone. Why would we fabricate something like that?”

    Trump, as if by instinct, retorted with a tweet indicating that she had lied: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

    It isn’t as if we couldn’t see this coming, what with candidate Trump’s vilification of another Gold Star family of color last summer, something that may have actually gained him fans.

    It is also the latest chapter in America’s long history of mistreating African American military veterans, alive or dead.

    As Peter C. Baker noted in November in the New Yorker, the Equal Justice Institute in Alabama released a report about lynching shortly after the election that indicated that “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans” of America’s wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Baker wrote that those veterans, returning home from fighting overseas, understandably felt more of an entitlement to equal treatment under the law, and the lynchings were intended to disabuse them of that notion.

    Lynching was the most violent form of racial denigration in that era. But racial denigration – that act by which bigots strip any respectability or humanity away from black folks to reinforce their false racial hierarchy – has never gone away.

    And Trump has such a gift for it that he used it to win the White House. He was elected by a swell of bigotry, and so he serves his masters with aplomb. It may be the only consistent thing he does.

    While he didn’t break out a noose for the Johnsons or Wilson, he did sic his dogs on them through his continued insistence that they are lying.

    Already, an Illinois man is being investigated for a Facebook post threatening to lynch Wilson. Knowing that his base either is racist or willing to vote in a man who would metastasize white supremacy, Trump felt secure putting a black Gold Star family in the crosshairs to escape accountability.

    Asked toward the end of the interview Monday whether she had anything to say to the president, Myeshia Johnson said, “No,” then paused a bit before adding, “I don’t have nothing to say to him.”

    You should watch it in its entirety, if for no other reason than to see this moment.

    Her anger and hurt was palpable throughout the interview, but perhaps none more so than right then. You’ll see a woman who clearly can’t believe that she has to deal with this nonsense.

    These are surely the worst days of her life. But rather than talking purely about her husband and any righteous rage she may have over the circumstances of his death, she has to talk about Trump and what he is doing to her.

    She may even be screaming inside over the fact that this maddening episode will always be a part of La David Johnson’s story. The president could’ve prevented that by trying to act like a human being for the five minutes it took to make that call, but alas.

    While we don’t yet understand why La David Johnson was left behind to die, we understand why his family has been treated like trash.

    A fallen soldier’s family is being forced to make space for the president’s petty grievances in their time of bereavement, all because, even at an unconscious level, America accepts white anger.

    Even when viewed as wrong, it is at least tolerated more than the fury of black folks. This has been a long con by conservatives, dating back to before the birth of the Southern Strategy after Jim Crow, and it is playing out for them now.

    The president knows that white resentment is a perfect fit for his pugnacious politics, so he can continue reflexively picking fights that wiser men ignore.

    He has cover from his acolytic base, who see the disrespect and hatred they have nurtured for so long exploding into presidential action.

    What appear to be confounding, unforced errors borne of his inherent cruelty are also chunks of red meat for his base.

    The satisfaction that Trump derives from feeding them clearly matters more to him than the outrage of a black war widow.

    If that’s disturbing, consider that it makes some political sense for him to behave like this.

    Whose fault is that?

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