Why the Rwandan genocide seemed like a drive-by shooting: the crisis of race, culture, and policy in the African diaspora.

Author:Vaught, Seneca


This essay addresses several cultural factors surrounding the absence of American intervention in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. The assertion that the Rwandan genocide seemed like a drive-by shooting is not used to describe how the Interhamwe rolled down the streets of Kigali in a tricked-out 1987 Chevy Caprice, indiscriminately killing Tutsi bystanders. Likewise, the metaphor is not employed to describe the ruthlessness of the Interhamwe who mercilessly hacked thousands of innocent Tutsi women and children to death with machetes until the roads were plastered with bloodstained mud and the ditches clogged with severed flesh. The simile of a drive-by shooting is a reference to how many Americans perceived the horrendous tragedy in Rwanda against the immediate background of gangsta rap, racial strife, pervasive stereotyping, and cultural misconceptions. The goal of the essay is to present an international perspective on the relevance of Africana Studies as a tool in analyzing foreign policy.

Much of the Western world's public perception of Africa is filtered through cultural lenses and dominant political priorities. Equally dominant is a popularization of continental tragedies and catastrophe. Browse the bookshelf at any major bookstore and the small space dedicated to African issues will be overflowing with books addressing one crisis or another. Surrounded on either side you will run into healthy sections on African American fiction and sometimes, if you are lucky, you will encounter the nonfiction section neatly filled with works in African American Studies.

Many of those with an interest in the African world are delighted whenever attention is given to discussion of African people. However, the floor plan of modern mega-bookstores reveals a more complex issue that is rooted in the way that Americans perceive people of African descent. Similar to the way that the layout of the big-box bookstore sandwiches works on African issues between the alluring, exotic and often sensational works of African-American fiction, historically policymakers have confronted issues of the African with dramatic and often distorted dispositions.

In the last 15 years particularly, a "whack-a-mole" policy approach to the continent has emphasized the drama of sporadic crises and an infatuation with quick policy solutions for long-term problems. In many ways, this approach mirrors the history of policy approaches to African Americans. Substituting spotty reforms and pledging greater support, Washington has created a patchwork of irregular policies instead of employing a comprehensive policy approach to human rights issues in the continent that acknowledges the longstanding impact of colonial policies. This negligence is particularly troubling since modern Africa traces many of its most challenging problems to the trials of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism (Boahen 1987: 99-101).

The short-term, crisis-oriented approach to African policy is dangerous because it undermines the complexity of the issues and prolongs suffering through unnecessary delay and repeated mistakes. While the African experience is broad enough to demand a more nuanced analysis than it now receives, at a glance, one must concede that Washington's policy approach with regard to black Americans (i.e. Americans of African descent living in the United States, slave descended or otherwise) and black indigenous Africans reveals some shocking similarities.

Addressing similarities in apartheid and segregation, George Fredrickson's comparative work on white supremacy in South Africa and the U.S., has offered a distinctive and important framework on the global dimension of race. While an interesting amount of scholarly attention has been devoted to interpreting the survival of African culture in the United States and the Americas (Holloway 1990: ix-240; M'Baye 2002: 66-77; Stuckey 1987: 78-79), few have successfully attempted to incorporate findings on race, policy and culture into transnational analyses of the nation-state. Political scientist Anthony Marx's work, Making Race and Nation, is one example of such exemplary scholarship. Following in the strain of Fredrickson, Marx's work illustrates the complexity and persistence of variables of race and culture in the evolution of South Africa, Brazil and the United States (Marx 1998: 1-3).

Numerous works have examined the bureaucratic nature of American policy paralysis in Rwanda and the failure of the West to address this humanitarian crisis. L.R. Melvern's A People Betrayed (2000) is perhaps the most efficient work on the topic. Additionally, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire's firsthand account, To Shake Hands with the Devil (2003), adds greater detail to the complexity of the crisis. Still, greater perception is needed to critically assess the American Rwanda policy decision.

Considering abundant parallels in race and foreign policy and the reciprocal relationship between political and popular culture in American society, we would do well to consider the American policy toward Rwanda in the context of the cultural wars of the 1990s. During this era, the American public and those in political office relied on televised trends in popular culture as major sources of information for agenda setting on domestic and foreign affairs (Hutson 1993:1-7; Collins 1990: 228-232). Deeply influenced by a myriad of cultural factors in the popular media alongside entrenched strategic interests, the State Department opted to simplify, downplay, and ignore empirical evidence for intervention in Rwanda. This essay does not attempt to explain the bureaucratic factors that led to this reaction but rather seeks to provide a more nuanced account of how race and American culture may have factored into the policy response.

During the 1960s, New Yorker journalist Richard Rovere suggested that American policy was moving in the direction of a "foreign policy" approach to the black American community. Well into the twentieth century, both communities (black American and Africans) were perceived as inferior and expendable. As a result of racist public perception and policy practices, Africans and African Americans with keen insights on policy issues saw their ideas dismissed as irrelevant to the American experience and sidelined in the geopolitics of the Cold War (Hayes III 2006: 435). (1)

Considering the preceding dilemma, one must inquire to what extent have black-white domestic issues and perceptions of such shaped American foreign policy? Black Americans have a unique historical status since they are considered culturally American but are often treated as politically foreign. In other words, the collective interests of black Americans have long been perceived as diametrically opposed to the interests of mainstream Americans (Walters 2003: 12-16, 134-135). With regard to policy, black Americans share a similar fate with indigenous Africans because they are often portrayed as benefiting from social policy at the expense of Americans.

Political debate surrounding race policy from the 13th Amendment to Bakke has, well through the 1990s, emphasized zero-sum game scenarios where mainstream Americans (usually white) inevitably will lose out in any policy that collectively benefits the black community. Although African Americans are tax-paying citizens of the United States, in policy discussions the criticism of race-valued policies is repeatedly made in antagonistic terms. In these discussions, African Americans are considered fiscal and social liabilities of the United States. Thus targeted policies that benefited American blacks were interpreted as foreign aid projects--indirectly useful but not beneficial to the broader welfare of the United States. In this manner, American blacks have been relegated to a foreign place in American policy-making alongside indigenous Africans.

Also, considering the role of race in the parallel histories of Africans and African Americans, one must consider how these racial histories and contemporary dilemmas inform domestic and foreign policy. It is undeniable that the roots of the present American foreign policy in Africa historically stems from the transatlantic slave trade. As George White suggests in Holding the Line: Race, Racism and American Foreign Policy towards Africa, white supremacy, in policy terms or otherwise, derives its power from slavery (White 2005: 4). So the transatlantic slave trade should be a starting point for one who seeks to understand the current dilemma that blacks face in the diaspora.

Unlike many European nations, American "diplomacy" with Africa began with the slave trade; Americans had no significant history of dealing with Africans in trade as legitimate economic rivals as did their European counterparts. (2) In the long-term, modern policies became increasingly biased by this fact and the racial attitudes that gradually accompanied the rise of the transatlantic slave system.

Some studies of the American transatlantic slave trade have documented that a slaver contract was "Considered a Magnificent Triumph of Diplomacy" and the significance of the illicit commerce as a "Successful Stroke for Free Trade and Sailor's Rights" (Spears 1900: 16-20). This instance alones raises concerns about the dubious nature of the "free market." Given this dilemma and the growing bibliography of the parallel histories of colonialism and racial oppression, a strong case for the transnational application of Africana Studies in policy history is evident.

When we examine American involvement in the continent of Africa, in general, and Rwanda, in particular, we should consider two important sources: 1) The historical experience of African Americans and the factor of race through which Americans have historically interpreted the continent of Africa. 2) Popular culture as a mechanism through which many Americans receive information about black Americans and Africans. (3) It has been argued...

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