What is Ethnic Cleansing, Really?
By Julianne Malveaux
Ignorance is bliss, especially in historical context. This is why so many Americans seem so extraordinarily moved by the “ethnic cleansing” that is taking place in Kosovo. The killings of Albanians are outrageous, to be sure. But people are allowing themselves to be whipped into some kind of air-strike-justifying frenzy because they are moved by poignant pictures of bruised and bloodied children who have been affected by the monster Milsoevic and his terrorism.
I, too, am moved. But I was also moved by photographs of emaciated children in Rwanda — children whose survival was threatened by tribal warfare there. I shudder at Kosovo’s ethnic cleansing. But I also shudder at the fact that half a million African people lost their lives in a clumsy Rwandan conflict that might have been stopped if only the West had decided to intervene. I am stunned by our multiple-choice morality — by the notion that we chafe against the killing of Europeans while we are indifferent to the massacre of Africans. I wonder if we can put this concept of “ethnic cleansing” in context.
From where I sit, the original ethnic cleansing took place when African people were snatched from their homeland and forced to survive the Middle Passage. Some made it, some didn’t; but the violence of slavery was inflicted on just one group in the 18th century, African people. The bones at the bottom of the ocean speak to a special kind of ethnic cleansing, a type that elicits neither horror nor anger.
Slavery is, for many, a history that African American people need to “get over.” Yet these same folks who spout indifference to the ethnic cleansing Black folks experienced aren’t likely to get over Kosovo any time soon.
If the Middle Passage didn’t diminish the African American presence in this country, the indignities of slavery could minimally be described as ethnic cleansing. One of the definitions of ethnic cleansing that I’ve seen speaks to the disabling of able-bodied men, and the miscegenation and rape of fertile women so that a bloodline would eventually die out. Consider this definition in light of common slavery practices — the fact that African people were not allowed to marry or create strong family ties, but that Whites were encouraged to see Black women as sexual property. Combine this with the stupidity of the one-drop rule that made the Whitest Black people Black when it served racial and patriarchal passages. In the context of slavery, we’ve seen ethnic cleansing, but this cleansing is far less outrageous than it might be if we were talking about White people, not Black ones.
If ethnic cleansing is about the weakening of a race, what is the police brutality that is especially directed toward African Americans? Might we call the evolution of DWB (driving while Black) a special form of ethnic cleansing? When so called law enforcement officers are empowered to harass men of one race for their own skewed purpose that is ethnic targeting if not cleansing. Some of the same legislative leaders that recoil from Kosovo tolerate New Jersey without as much as a shrug. Why can’t we be consistent?
When ethnic cleansing is put in domestic historical context, it is clear that in these United States, the ethnic cleansing of African Americans is part of our nation’s structural foundation. We are not outraged at the ire that African Americans feel because we have been systematically cleansed from the highways, the classrooms, and now — with the new gentrification, or urban renewal, which means black folk removal — from our nation’s inner cities. Instead, we see the forces that precipitate this cleansing as economic, political, or even casual.
While there has been no Milosevic in African American history, there has been a Bull Connor, a Jim Crow law, and even a myopic Ronald Reagan who did not go after Black people directly, but whose benign neglect has had long-term consequences.
If we couple ethnic cleansing with purported remedies for it, African American people have more reason to feel slighted. Kosovo, it is said, now needs a “Marshall Plan” to rebuild and revive after the Milosevic massacres. We’ll spend $6 billion on war, but a multiple of that on the Kosovo Marshall Plan. If this plan is modeled on the original Marshall Plan, we’ll spend a significant portion of our gross national product on Kosovo. In 1946 to 1950, we spent 1.5 percent of the GNP annually on Europe.
When have inner cities had the benefit of a Marshall Plan? Africa, chafing under the indignities of structural adjustment might, also, enjoy a Marshall Plan that provided rebuilding and revitalization.
It’s all about context. The context for our discussion of ethnic cleansing is the narrow lens through which we view the current conflict and its outcomes. We can focus solely on Kosovo because we see the carnage there as visually horrific, without realizing that we show our hand when we suggest that Rwanda wasn’t as awful. The context of a discussion of ethnic cleansing should also include a discussion about the repair and reform of schools — an issue so important that it affects all our children.
The ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is repulsive, but no more so than our nation’s history of ethnic cleansing. How could the United States wipe out millions of Native people and leave African bones at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and then express horror at Milsoveic’s massacres? Isn’t our nation, after all, cut from the same foul, nationalistic cloth as Milosevic? Haven’t we been as indifferent to the plight of those who are not White, who are not privileged?
What is ethnic cleansing, anyway? And when does it happen? It’s not only a feature of contemporary life in Kosovo, but also of the historical life in these United States. Which is more repulsive? Why the selective outrage? If nothing else, this discussion of ethnic cleansing makes a case for critical study of our nation’s flawed history.
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