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Even in the midst of war, racism never rests

Black and brown refugees are facing discrimination even as they flee war in Ukraine, though some refused to believe them.

Emmanuel Nwulu, right, a Nigerian studying in Kharkiv, Ukraine, with other fellow students who crossed the Ukrainian border into Zahony, Hungary, on Feb. 27. Africans who had been living in Ukraine say they were stuck for days at crossings into neighboring European Union countries, held up by Ukrainian authorities who pushed them to the ends of long lines and even beat them, while letting Ukrainians through.LAETITIA VANCON/NYT

Not during a high school basketball game. Not during remote learning on Zoom. Not during an online meeting about anti-Asian hate. Certainly not during a deadly pandemic.

Racism never rests — even during war.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last week, hundreds of thousands began the arduous journey to leave their suddenly war-torn nation. All had the same goal — to escape harm, protect their families, and find safe passage from the bombs and bullets. Yet not all were treated the same. Africans and Asians — some of them students, many of them Ukrainian citizens — said they faced discrimination from Ukraine officials.


On social media, they shared stories of being moved to the back of lines and made to wait long hours in freezing temperatures while white people were allowed ahead of them. CNN’s Sara Sidner interviewed a Black woman who identified herself as Naya, a native of Cameroon who has lived in Ukraine with her husband and child for 10 years. Along with another Black mother, she said, she was physically prevented from getting on a train heading toward a border crossing. Naya also said she witnessed a Black man already on the train forced to leave at gunpoint.

Even as these accounts proliferated, including some about Black and brown refugees denied entry to neighboring countries, there were doubts about their veracity — and not only on social media. At Poland’s border, Janez Lenarcic, a European commissioner for crisis management, said on CNN he had been “assured that this is fake news, that this is not true, and honestly we have not been able to corroborate that.” When Sidner said her own reporting backed the refugees’ stories, Lenarcic said, “Any discrimination of people who are fleeing the conflict on the basis of any personal characteristic including citizenship or skin color is completely unacceptable.”


Aside from “fake news,” that ugly Trumpian remnant, Lenarcic’s remark emphasized that racism cannot thrive without enablers. He chose to believe those who denied what the refugees witnessed and documented with their phones’ cameras.

Martin Mpofu, center, a student from Zimbabwe in weak health, was helped by his brother Maneedi, right, and Hatim Redouani, from Morocco, as they crossed from Ukraine into in Medyka, Poland, on Monday.MAURICIO LIMA/NYT

Perhaps underlying this skepticism is the fact that Russia has long exploited other nations’ racial tensions and used misinformation to sow distrust. During our 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Russian intelligence agencies under the direction of President Vladimir Putin created phony Black Lives Matter groups across social media platforms, spread disinformation to deter Black people from voting, and tried to rile up white supremacist violence — all to aid Donald Trump.

For decades, Soviet officials paid close attention to this nation’s racial strife. Of course, they never cared about the violence Black people faced. It was a weapon designed to silence any criticism of the Soviet Union’s own discriminatory policies and human rights abuses and highlight American hypocrisy.

Those decades of history could have made it easier for some to believe that reports of racism were manufactured by Russia to curb sympathy for Ukraine. Then again, what Black and brown refugees have endured might have garnered more attention sooner if some reporters’ own biases hadn’t gotten in their way.

Charlie D’Agata, a CBS correspondent, apologized days after saying Ukraine “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 — [country], where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”


Imagine what D’Agata might have said if he hadn’t chosen his words “carefully.”

In the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan, a British journalist, wrote of Ukrainians, ”They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”

Clearly, they never saw those Black and brown refugees among the throngs trying to leave Ukraine. What Hannan meant by “impoverished and remote populations” is obvious; when white journalists speak of “civilized” or “us,” they mean white people.

Racism never takes a break. Even in times of crisis and chaos, there’s no cease-fire. And racists are so accustomed to the world looking the other way, their horrors don’t stop even when the world is looking right at them.

The greatest trick white supremacy ever pulled was convincing so many that racism does not exist and that those who speak of its existence are liars and troublemakers. So far, Russia’s brutal invasion has forced more than a million people to leave Ukraine, and this march of misery will not soon end. Nor, we’ve seen again, will racism or those who willfully ignore it, an atrocity as old and destructive as war itself.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.