The notorious US military base and penal colony in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, serves as a stark example of militarized institutional racism. There, 166 people are indefinitely detained, but 2 might be returned to Algeria. Of those, 86 are cleared for release, but remain detained. While a few are being tried in military commissions (which are ineffective at upholding rights of the accused), the vast majority are held without charge or trial. According to Guantanamo chief prosecutor US Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, they are “detained until the end of hostilities” against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and “associated forces,” which could be decades from now. The majority of Guantanamo detainees are, thus, prisoners of war in an endless war.
Indefinite detention violates international human rights law. Yet, along with military commissions, it’s been supported by President Barack Obama. This indefinite detention, along with the squalid conditions of their confinement, has led around 70 detainees to engage in a hunger strike that has lasted nearly half a year, so far. Of those, around four dozen are being force-fed, a brutal procedure in which a tube is shoved up a person’s nose and down into their stomachs to feed them a supplement. Force-feeding, according to many doctors and human rights advocates, violates medical ethics and amounts to torture. The vast majority of the detainees are Muslim, mostly from Yemen with others from places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. The detention center at Guantanamo is one chapter in the long saga of US militarism against the world’s majority – non-white, non-European peoples.
Racism is power and justifies war
Racism is a system of power, hierarchy, inequality and oppression reinforced by racist ideology to keep it going. Its roots lie in slavery and the genocide of the native Americans. Its continuation is exemplified by current inequalities between blacks and whites in wealth, employment, and other areas of life – with blacks positioned far below whites in the socioeconomic ladder. Racist ideology is manifested by negative perceptions of nonwhite people. A 2008 study done by psychologists at Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley showed that many white Americans associate black people with apes. Coauthor Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford psychology professor, remarked, “African-Americans are still dehumanized; we’re still associated with apes in this country. That association can lead people to endorse the beating of black suspects by police officers, and I think it has a lot of other consequences that we have yet to uncover.” A related consequence lies in war, which racism ideologically justifies. To kill people in wars, the designated enemy must be dehumanized. Using racialized differences (culture, skin color, ancestry, etc.) is a very common way to dehumanize and subjugate a population. They are seen as “others” who are “not like us,” thus, apt for killing. The War on Terror is a continuation of US wars against darker-skinned peoples. Today’s “enemy” are Muslims, usually (though not always) darker-skinned people from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Depicted as “terrorists” in popular discourse, these communities face continuing Islamophobia, marginalization and dehumanization.
Since Guantanamo houses detainees who are mostly, if not all, Muslim and nonwhite, it is an example of institutional racism within the global war on terror. But it goes deeper than that. While Guantanamo is notorious for indefinite detention, military commissions, torture, and the hunger strike, what’s commonly forgotten is that it is a US naval base that’s been on Cuban soil for more than a hundred years. In addition to detaining people in dismal conditions, it also used as a refueling station for US ships and a base for counter-narcotics operations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Many of these operations are carried out by the Coast Guard stationed at Guantanamo.
Foreign workers exploited in Guantanamo, other US bases
On the 45-square-mile base, there are suburban-style homes for troops and military families, restaurants, bars, a supermarket, Subway, McDonald’s, a movie theater, occasional balls for soldiers on the base and other amenities of a typical city or military base. If you’re there long enough, you wouldn’t think there’s a prison housing hundreds of “suspected terrorists” a few miles from where you’re at. During my two weeks of reporting in Guantanamo, I noticed many of the workers on the base were Filipino and Afro-Caribbean. They worked as baggers, cashiers, restaurant servers, repair people (I remember seeing a few Filipino workers repair the air conditioning in the media operations center where journalists work), construction workers, grass mowers, sanitation workers and other service providers.
In military jargon, these workers are known as “third-country nationals” or TCNs. In her book Guantánamo: A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution, Professor Jana K. Lipman explains that in the beginning, many of the workers at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station were local Cubans, some British West Indians, Puerto Ricans and Asians. But the 1959 Cuban revolution ended contact between the American naval base and the rest of Cuba. To replace those workers, the United States imported laborers from Jamaica and the Philippines. Columbia University researcher Darryl Li noted that “In the past decade, the Pentagon’s privatization drives have dramatically increased its global reliance on TCN [third-country national] labor.” At Guantanamo, many of these workers work for contractors like Bremcor and BDRC.
In March of 2002, the recruitment firm Anglo-European Services, which is tied to Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), formerly a subsidiary of the American oil corporation Halliburton Company (of which Dick Cheney was former chairman and CEO), “sent 250 Filipino construction workers to build additional detention cells for US-held terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba,” reported the Asia Times in July 2006. The workers “were allegedly slipped out of the Ninoy Quino International Airport without passing through standard immigration procedures” and left “on a chartered flight to Cuba.” Both the United States and Philippine governments kept the recruitment “under wraps.”
But Guantanamo is not the only US military base to employ foreign workers. They’re employed by several US government contractors like KBR and DynCorp International, through tertiary subcontractors (mainly from the Middle East), to do logistical work at many military bases, such as in Afghanistan. These workers hail from countries like the Philippines, Fiji, Nepal and Bangladesh.
In a detailed June 2011 exposé, The New Yorker reported that they are “the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service US military logistic contracts.” While the “expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known,” says journalist Sarah Stillman, who traveled to US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to write the story, “armed security personnel account for only about 16 percent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority – more than 60 percent of the total in Iraq – aren’t hired guns but hired hands.” According to Stillman, “These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on US bases, eat at meager chow halls, and host dance parties featuring Nepalese romance ballads and Ugandan church songs. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law.”
Labor protections in these environments are virtually nonexistent. Many workers interviewed for the report “recount having been robbed of wages, injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault and held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses.” Most of the workers make a couple hundred dollars a month. Their abysmal treatment has led to many “food riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers.”
At bases in countries like Afghanistan, foreign workers face war-zone dangers, namely being killed or injured from explosions and attacks. Thousands of contractors have been killed and injured. According to the New Yorker report, “private contractor losses are now on a par with those of US troops in [Iraq and Afghanistan] war zones.” However, since deaths and injuries of foreign workers are rarely counted, the actual toll could be higher.
An ACLU report, released last year, highlighted that the system by which US contractors employ foreign workers amounts to trafficking and forced labor. The US government gives a contract to a primary contractor. Rather than hire directly, that contractor contracts subcontractors to do the job. Those subcontractors pay recruiters who recruit foreign workers in their home countries and make them pay exorbitant recruitment fees to get a job. Those workers are normally tricked into thinking they’ll work at one (usually nicer) place with promises of a higher salary, only to wind up somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan making low wages. According to the report, “the vast majority of TCNs ultimately earn between $150-$500 per month,” close to $1,800-$6,000 annually. Such coercion, abuses, “deceptive hiring practices, exploitation, and abuse of power” amount to trafficking, thereby violating international and US antitrafficking laws, according to the ACLU. Moreover, it is an affront to basic human rights.
This is where the forces of corporate globalization, institutional racism and militarism conjoin. Foreign workers are exploited by private companies to work on US military bases. The exploitation of foreign workers may not be racist by intent. However, it is institutionally racist in effect because of whom it impacts and exploits – black and brown people from poorer countries.
Intersections between racism and war – at home and abroad
Militarism is a system of projecting aggressive military power to promote state interests, such as national defense, countering adversaries, or control of vital resources and markets. It largely subjugates people of color around the world. Today’s imperial landscape is marked by conventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – which are winding down – and the expansion of asymmetric wars through assassination, raids by special operations forces, air wars, proxy wars, private military contractors, and drone strikes. These asymmetric wars are occurring in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, but expanding to other areas, particularly in Africa. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people, along with displacing over four million, destroying infrastructure and leaving many Iraqis with birth defects and cancer thanks to depleted uranium used by US armed forces. US covert wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have killed thousands with deaths continuing to rise. Many of them are civilians or unknown persons. Only 2 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan are high-level terrorist leaders. The rest are civilians and unidentified or low-level Afghan and Pakistani militants, according to McClatchy. As they inflict death and injury, US drone strikes have also terrorized and radicalized civilian populations in Pakistan.
The victims of wars, occupations, bombings, proxy wars and militarized neoliberal exploitation are predominantly people from darker-skinned, non-European countries, who constitute the world’s majority, but neither possess much of the world’s wealth nor control the global economy (that power lies in Europe and North America). A list of US military interventions from 1890 to 2011 by Professor Zoltan Grossman of Evergreen State College shows that most US wars occurred in Latin America, the Arab World and many parts of Asia. They include the massacre at Wounded Knee, Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, coups in Iran, Iraq, and Chile, backing the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and the 1976-92 proxy war in Angola. Because of whom it oppresses, militarism is systematically racist.
Militarism also impacts people of color, especially black people, at home. According to a thorough report done by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, one black person is killed every 28 hours by law enforcement or armed vigilantes. Most of the time, the victims are unarmed and use of force was excessive. Police dehumanize black people by suspecting they are potential threats in the same way soldiers dehumanize “the enemy” overseas. Hence police typically say they “felt threatened” before they shot a black person. State and vigilante violence against African-Americans is not new. It dates back to slave catchers and lynchings of black people in the South. But this system has grown to new heights with the militarization of domestic police forces. Police are given military weapons, equipment, tactics, and training through grants, Pentagon giveaways, and, after 9/11, Department of Homeland Security grants. This started under the Reagan administration and has continued under Obama.
Little mention in liberal media
Many purportedly anti-racist liberal talking heads and media outlets tend to under-appreciate the connections between racism and militarism. One would expect them as people with knowledge about race relations to highlight this connection when national security stories come up. However, they tend to drop the ball.
Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University and MSNBC show host, specializes in African-American politics and provides a liberal perspective on American race relations. She spoke out against the Zimmerman verdict and provides insightful coverage on issues like the infringement of voting rights in communities of color. But her views on Obama’s militarism range from blasé to apologetic. Last November, when discussing drone strikes on her show, Harris-Perry asked journalist Allison Kilkenny and MSNBC host Chris Hayes, “Make a case to me about why they’re problematic because I’m not sure that I agree.” Harris-Perry brought up police shootings of black youth in the United States in response to Hayes criticizing the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American citizen killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Rather than seize the opportunity to make the connection between domestic institutionalized racist violence and American militarism, she used it to buttress her nonchalance on the issue of drone strikes.
Touré, another MSNBC commentator, is also liberal on race issues. But he’s hawkish when it comes to drone strikes and assassination. Touré regularly comes to the Obama administration’s defense on their belligerent counterterrorism policies. Last February, on Twitter, Touré said “Obama as Commander in Chief is tasked with leading our war against Al Qaeda. He can and [sic] should kill [al-Qaeda] leaders whenever possible.” On The Cycle, he expanded his argument, “But we are at war with al-Qaeda right now. And if you join al-Qaeda, you lose the right to be an American; you lose the right to due process; you declare yourself an enemy of this nation. And you are committing treason” – even though the Constitution grants due process for those who commit treason. Then again, this is pretty much normal for a network that functions as the Obama administration’s Pravda.
The Root and The Grio are two large black media outlets; The Root, is owned by The Washington Post; and The Grio is owned by NBC News. They provide neither substantial coverage of foreign policy issues nor deeper analysis of the intersections between racism and empire. What one does get, however, is a lot of support for Obama. Contrast this with Black Agenda Report – a black leftist news and analysis website – or Pambazuka News – a Pan-Africanist online weekly newsletter – and the coverage is far different. Along with substantive critiques of the Obama administration’s transgressions, there’s regular critical analysis of domestic politics, foreign affairs, and the connections between institutional racism and Western imperialism. However, sites like Black Agenda Report and Pambazuka News are independent and have less exposure than The Root, The Grio, or MSNBC, due to the latter’s corporate ownership. This raises the issue of how corporate media dilute the wider discourse on race relations.
That is a problem because it reveals a blind spot in understanding about issues of race and national security. It leaves certain realities in the dark, such as the plight of foreign workers on American military bases. Highlighting the connections can add deeper context to problems, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin. His death was the byproduct of a militarized system of racism that allows a neighborhood watchman to carry a gun and shoot anyone (especially black teenagers) he deems threatening, with impunity. Examining the real connections between racism and militarism provides better understanding of the issues at stake. Such analysis is more likely to be found in independent black journalistic outlets than corporate media.