Our most authentic selves are usually revealed during times of crisis.
If that’s the case, news coverage and public behavior since Russia invaded Ukraine have revealed our propensity to support people who fit our expectation of which victims are worthy of aid. My hope, naïve as it might be, is that our reaction to this crisis becomes a standard for how we respond to international conflict across the globe, not just European countries.
I’ve watched coverage of this crisis unfold since early January, when global intel revealed Russia’s intentions to invade. At that time, the future was unclear, but we could already see how major news coverage saturated each hour with a narrative of “It shouldn’t happen here.”
I couldn’t agree more with the condemnation of Russia’s war crimes against a sovereign nation. I am, however, deeply critical of the implicit suggestion that it should happen somewhere — anywhere — else.
When CBS News senior correspondent Charlie D’Agata used the word “civilized” to describe the people of Ukraine live on air on Feb. 25, I searched for ways to understand, perhaps even justify, his choice of words. Though there’s no justification for the use of a word so blatantly disrespectful to the plight of countries our nation destabilized, there is a reason. Racism prevails, even in times of war.
His words: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”
The word “hope” is doing a lot of work there — enough to wonder where would one hope a humanitarian crisis like this would happen instead.
Naturally, it’s easy for us to consider this language isolated to one reporter’s problematic ideas or unfortunate choice of words. But D’Agata’s words reflect global attitudes about under-developed nations and people of color, as is demonstrated by reports of African students and immigrants experiencing extreme difficulty when attempting to evacuate Ukraine at the Polish border.
In response, Nigerian officials have condemned these reports and advised the roughly 4,000 Nigerians in Ukraine to head to the Hungarian border instead. To do so, they’ll need to re-enter a war-torn country in hopes that a different border nation will accept them without contest — a journey I’m certain came without guarantee.
“I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of this,” said Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). An active consumer of international news, George says the rhetoric and coverage of the Russian invasion is partly to blame.
“There have been millions of civilians who have gone through the crisis that we’re going through now,” he said. “But this time, we’ve got all the major TV, radio and press there. This has happened repeatedly for decades in other parts of the world — Africa or the Middle East — and we just didn’t have the coverage or didn’t have the interest.”
During the crisis in Afghanistan, IRIS resettled hundreds of Afghans within a matter of months. The effort was one of the largest undertakings in the organization’s history, and George said he anticipates there will be references to those unprecedented evacuations.
“Its human nature for people to sympathize more with people who look like them. And the public response, from a mostly white country and people in power who are mostly white, will probably be one of great sympathy for most Ukrainians, and there will be a great push to bring large numbers of refugees to the United States,” he said. “Those of us who work in the field of humanitarian aid are all hoping that people have a much broader view of human suffering. Our care and concern shouldn’t just be for people who look like us or whose skin is the same as ours. But that’s pretty idealistic, isn’t it?”
To dispel our natural inclination to excuse or explain D’Agata’s words, George offers an opinion of what’s likely going on at the Polish border, saying that rejecting people’s pursuit of asylum “goes against all international law.”
“You cannot do that. When people are experiencing violence and persecution, you have to let them pass,” he said. “I’m sure they’re going to say these are just rogue border guards and not policy. But I don’t believe that for a minute. African students are waiting in line for hours and watching Ukrainians just across from them pass into safety. We just have to acknowledge that we’re seeing racism in this moment.”
In a March 4 press release, Congressman Joe Courtney, D-Conn., Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, shared how more than $1 billion in U.S. military support over the past year has helped supply Ukraine with critical defense resources. He then urged Congress to follow through on President Joe Biden’s call for a new round of immediate defense and humanitarian support for our partners in Ukraine.
These are the right responses to war. These calls for action are exactly how the world’s largest military and economic power should support nations under threat of violence from foreign actors. But these actions aren’t common. As of now, they seem to be reserved for deserving nations — those whose membership into the European Union is practically a given, those who can garner empathy from countries around the world because we see them as “civilized” and worthy of peace.
The impact of that bias in international affairs means coverage from major publications is drastically increased. More reporters get sent to “civilized” war zones to capture the devastation than to poor nations.
Images of white faces streaked with tears waiting for another packed train to take off to the Polish border get a million shares. Bills are passed. Funds are allocated. People get the help they need. And as long as those people aren’t Black or brown, they’ll be welcomed into a new country with the benefit of the doubt and the expectation that they’ll bring valuable skills to the country’s workforce.
But, like George, I know people from Middle Eastern, South American, and African countries don’t usually benefit from global altruism in times of crisis.
“I’m sorry, but people are people. [People in other countries] have been running with bullets flying over their head, picking their children up and walking miles to the border, but we don’t get coverage in the same way,” he said.
Without a critical lens to this crisis, it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back for our response. But some of us know this isn’t typical. My hope, and that of humanitarian workers like George whose agency will be watching this crisis closely, is that the coverage of the war in Ukraine sets a new standard for covering conflict in the world.