Biden’s belated acknowledgement of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre means little in the face of his silence over last month’s massacre in Gaza.
Two weeks after the end of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Joe Biden became the first United States president to acknowledge the Tulsa race massacre in the US state of Oklahoma, where, a century ago, a white mob killed as many as 300 Black Americans, and devastated the prosperous Black neighbourhood of Greenwood. His sombre reflection at Tulsa – which he described as an atrocity “told in silence, cloaked in darkness” – reflected his own silence over the massacre in Gaza and his administration’s blocking of international efforts to stop the air attacks which killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children.
The twin struggles against racist oppression in the US and colonialism abroad have historically coalesced along the oppression of Black people in the US and on the African continent. But, as acknowledged by former South African president and global liberation icon, Nelson Mandela, they are intimately tied to struggles against oppression elsewhere. Speaking nearly a quarter of a century ago, on the occasion of the 20th International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian People, and just six years after the formal end of apartheid in his nation, Mandela famously declared that the freedom of Black South Africans was “incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.
Mandela noted that “we would be less than human” if “having achieved our own freedom, we [fell] into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face” and spoke “in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own”.
Yet this is exactly what the Biden administration is doing. And it is a position rejected by the Black Lives Matter movement which has issued a declaration of “solidarity with Palestinians” and commitment “to ending settler colonialism in all forms”. Coming so close on the heels of the first anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd which provided an impetus for a global movement to address the legacy of colonialism, it is important to keep in mind, as Mandela did, that it is not just about dealing with the sins of the past but also those being committed today.
Underlying this is a recognition that the system of racist oppression is not contained within national boundaries. It spans the entire globe, reproducing the same racial disparities at the international level that one sees within nations. It is the same system that has created a global underclass of the darker-skinned, “less developed” and brutalised nations subjugated by the “developed” and largely white nations of Europe and North America. It is reflected in the desire to maintain the supremacy of the US as a global hegemon and the demonisation of countries, like China and Iran, that are perceived as a challenge to it. And it is at work in the privileging of Israel’s “right to defend itself” even as it implements a policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. As with the Tulsa massacre, where none of the perpetrators was prosecuted and instead blame was heaped on the Black people attempting to defend their neighbourhood, Palestinians find themselves blamed for Israel’s bombardment with the suggestion that they brought it upon themselves by taking up arms – in this case, rockets – against their oppressors. Their resistance is what is cited to justify their oppression.
Biden’s belated recognition of the Tulsa massacre as an act of white supremacist terrorism and his acknowledgement of the reality of systemic racism in the US is already deficient while he dissembles on reparations for victims and on dismantling the structures that made them possible. However, it is “less than human” when juxtaposed against the continued support for racist oppression and dominance abroad. Addressing racial injustice at home should not be about including Black Americans as partners in a system that maintains a global caste system of violent extraction and oppression. That would be repeating the experience of Africans, whose elites were transformed into agents of the same system under the cloak of an “independence” that was predicated on preserving the global order and the colonial regimes of extraction. When those like Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso refused to come to heel, they were deposed and murdered with the connivance of the West.
The many coups and massacres that the US and its Western allies have abetted in “developing” nations across the globe – from Latin America to the Middle East – deserve similar recognition as acts of white supremacist terrorism. The racist nature of the international system, embodied in the inequality perpetrated by institutions like the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, should be openly called out, as should the structural barriers placed in the way of non-white nations by the legacy of racist colonial subjugation.
Such a globally oriented conversation would eschew the murder and oppression of Palestinians in the same way it eschews that of Black Americans and would recognise, as Mandela did, the futility of attempting to acknowledge one while ignoring and abetting the latter. As he put it, “in extending our hands across the miles to the people of Palestine, we do so in the full knowledge that we are part of a humanity that is at one”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.