When Sputnik circled the earth in 1957, Americans were agog that the Russians had beaten us into space. In Black barbershops, segregated classrooms of the South and other spaces where Black folk could speak openly, it was undisputed that America’s inability to focus on the “space race” was because of its obsession with the “race question.” Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and one year after that, the Court had ordered the desegregation of public school with “all deliberate speed.” These directives for fairness and equality for African Americans set the South ablaze and racial bigots raised every imaginable barricade to prevent equal educational opportunities for Black children.
Some people will say that desegregation had nothing to do with the space race. But the number of Black astronauts, physicists, engineers and mathematicians who have contributed to America’s space efforts since integration exposes that bit of white supremacy for what it is. Prohibiting African Americans from attending many universities with advanced science programs, and participating fairly in the aerospace industry and the effort to conquer space, amputated a valuable portion of this nation’s brain power.
Today, we again find ourselves in competition with Russia on another geopolitical chessboard. Russia, Brazil, India and China have pushed forward on the global stage to become economic powerhouses collectively known as “BRIC.” Also, many nations that we once deemed as belonging to the “Third World” are becoming more robust as they slowly shed the neo-colonial economic and political chains that bound them. Many African nations that once were considered dysfunctional are gaining their footing in these areas, forming significant partnerships with China and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently welcomed several African leaders to a meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi and told them he wants to more than double the amount Russia trades with the African continent.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was invested in liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau and it also had a close relationship with Ethiopia. The Kremlin was not only investing in the military struggles of African nations, it was making efforts to help them improve their capacity for health care and education.
For decades, the Russian government has been positioning itself as an educational mecca for African students. They were successful in this effort in the 1960s thanks to the horrific reputation the United States garnered because of its treatment of African Americans, particularly in Southern states. In 1960, the Soviet government scored a public relations slam dunk when it established the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow. Currently, this university has foreigners from approximately 100 countries and counts among its student body 1,100 Africans.
Some of Russia’s assistance to Africa dried up when the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1980s, and its once vigorous presence in Africa became a mere shadow of its former self. But Putin sought to strengthen Russia’s relationships with Africa by inviting African leaders to the conference in Sochi and billed it as an “Africa Summit.” Forty-three of the 55 African heads of state attended.
Pictures of African leaders hobnobbing with Russian businessmen and examining Russian weapons for sale has had an unsettling effect on Western observers. This unease in the West is probably exactly what Putin was aiming for. With an undeniable racist in the White House, and with white nationalism rising in the United States and Western Europe, the politically savvy, former KGB agent sees cracks in the decades-old political links erected by the former colonial powers to stem the communist/socialist tide streaming into the former African colonies with the flood of independence.
Putin is now acting on the political reality that China has exploited for decades. The shiny promise of Western-style democracy, tarnished by the corrosive effects of white supremacy and white privilege, has lost its luster for Africans, and now it is no more than a dull glow from the embers of broken promises.
Racism in America has reached a point where people of color are being gunned down in U.S. streets. And in Western European nations, racial intolerance is surfacing, pushed upward by the backlash against the immigration of people of color seeking those same opportunities Europeans sought a century ago when they left their homelands for America. To the Africans at home, the Western nations do not present a good look.
At the conclusion of Putin’s Africa Summit, he announced that Russia had signed military cooperation agreements with 30 of the participating nations for military helicopters, fighter jets and armored vehicles.
It cannot be denied that while the United States is hamstrung by an illegitimate president, Moscow is expanding its clout globally. Just days before the Africa Summit, Putin met in Sochi with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, where the two came to an agreement about the conflict in Syria.
The Daily Mail newspaper of the United Kingdom reports that Russia is already Africa’s largest arms supplier. Its annual trade across that continent now exceeds $20 billion, twice what it was five years ago, and Putin has said that he is confident that this figure can double again in the next four or five years.
In addition to offering a cornucopia of weaponry, Putin offered to demonstrate his diplomatic chops by suggesting he help mediate a thorny dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia – two of the continent’s largest powers – over the waters of the Nile River.
So, again, while the United States is gouging out its own eyes in a bitter struggle over race, Russia is taking advantage of our distraction to position itself as a world leader. If Americans do not wake up to this reality, this is one race we will lose.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.