Racing National Security: Introduction to the Just Security Symposium

(Editor’s Note: This article introduces the Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf. The goal of the symposium is to render race visible in national security to shift the dominant paradigm toward addressing issues of racial justice.)

How does race manifest in national security?

National security as traditionally conceived refers to protecting a nation from attack and encompasses areas like economic, monetary, energy, environmental, military, and political security, as well as natural resources. Yet, do the field and concept of national security as practice and theory stretch to include issues of racial justice? How does white supremacy inform and shape the parameters of what “counts” as national security? How do ideas about race perpetuate and reinforce existing hierarchies in national security? Does national security law and its implementation subtly or directly facilitate racial subordination nationally and globally? What benefits or limitations does race have as an analytical tool for practitioners, policymakers and scholars of national security? What would it mean to race national security?

The increasing attention to issues of racial justice both domestically and internationally and the ongoing uprising challenging the racial status quo warrant an explicit engagement with these questions and motivate this series. The primary purpose of the “Racing National Security” series is to render race visible in national security. Failing to see race and engage with race render the role of racism and white supremacy invisible in national security and limit effective problem solving.

The failure to engage explicitly with race and racial justice is evidenced in some of the previous contributions in Just Security. This is not an issue unique to these contributions, but instead mirrors the longstanding backgrounding given to issues implicating race in this and other fora. This series intentionally seeks to uplift voices and topics that tend to be decentered in national security discussions.

The secondary aim of the series is to highlight the importance of a racial justice framework over and above one focused on racial discrimination. Racial justice as an alternative framework shifts attention to macro-structural processes that facilitate racial subordination and stratification as opposed to individual acts of discrimination. Makau Matua’s work draws attention to how international law, like national law, is captive to the racial biases and hierarchies that hide injustice under the pretext of legal neutrality and universality. Foregrounding race and racial justice, then, is a task that is necessary not only for the field and practice of national security, but the discipline of domestic and international law more generally.

Standing on Shoulders

“Racing National Security,” draws inspiration from a rich body of scholarship that positions racial justice as fundamental to understanding national security as praxis and theory. Many academics have long sought to bring issues of race from the periphery to the center in national security discussions. In 1998 Natsu Taylor Saito wrote in “Crossing the Border: The Interdependence of Foreign Policy and Racial Justice in the United States” that the ill-treatment of racial and ethnic minorities within the borders of the United States makes it easier to disregard the rights and humanity of those outside the border. Ruth Gordon’s “Racing U.S. Foreign Policy” questioned how race affects lawmaking and decision making in foreign policy and international law. Experts like Henry J. Richardson III have also examined the role of race in U.S. foreign interventions in “U.S. Hegemony, Race, and Oil in Deciding United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 on Iraq.” Aziz Rana’s research situated the United States alongside other settler societies marked by longstanding histories in which colonists and their descendants divided legal, political, and economic rights between insiders and subordinated outsiders, be they expropriated indigenous groups or racial minorities. Similarly, Tayyab Mahmud’s scholarship unearthed how constructions of race shaped the colonial encounter and influenced the development of nationalism and a security apparatus aimed at upholding racial hierarchy.

Researchers like Gil Gott have explained that the demonization of “enemy groups” is racialized in national security law and policy. This demonization is evidenced in the intersection between immigration law and policy and national security claims to safeguard White majoritarian interests from the racialized other. The work of scholars such as Wadie E. Said demonstrates how the construction of the terrorist, the criminal, and the illegal immigrant as “foreign” facilitates the migration of “War on Terror” practices from the global arena to the domestic, while in other instances police practices are brought to bear in the context of external wars. Similarly, professors like Sahar Aziz and Khaled E. Beydoun have made explicit connections between the targeting of Black and Brown populations as “terrorists” for dissident activity, in “Fear of a Black and Brown Internet: Policing Online Activism.”  While others like Darryl Li have scrutinized the consequences of policing transnational Muslim populations and the concomitant placement of some people outside the law and others above it. Nana Osei-Opare argues that this has resulted in mainstream discussions that obfuscate “White terrorism” from national security such that seemingly only non-Western bodies are capable of terrorism. Some intellectuals like Tina Patel even question whether the security framing simply masks racism inherent in counter-terrorism strategies.

From Racial Discrimination to Racial Justice

Recently, Just Security has featured several articles under the theme of racial discrimination. Shifting the framework to racial justice is necessary because a thematic focus on racial discrimination can unwittingly center individual pathologies, ideologies, and attitudes. This is because of the strong associations that tend to view racism as psychological. Indeed, Frantz Fanon pointed out the problematic predisposition to consider racial discrimination as the product of a mental quirk in “Black Skin, White Masks.” This series aims to move Just Security’s thematic focus away from a framing that can inadvertently elevate discussions of whether individual actors are “racists,” to a thematic focus that explicitly prioritizes addressing institutional racism and anti-subordination efforts aimed at fostering racial justice.

Moreover, some of the contributions filed under Just Security’s “racial discrimination” theme are better understood as ones that concentrate on issues of racial justice. For instance, “The United States’ Racial Justice Problem is Also an International Human Rights Law Problem” by E. Tendayi Achiume and “How Inter-State Procedures in Human Rights Treaties Can Support the Black Lives Matter Movement” by Nawi Ukabiala both turn to international human rights law for redress and to facilitate more racially just and equitable outcomes. Additionally, “Black Lives Matter Might Just Rescue American Democracy” by Oona Hathaway and Daniel Markovits and “Researchers on Atrocity Prevention Warn: US on Path to Widespread Political Violence” by Jeffrey Smith and Richard Ashby Wilson position the issue of racial justice as central to maintaining peace and democracy. Notably, Zinaida Miller problematizes the assumption that stability in the United States is less dangerous, violent, or threatening than instability since that very stability can be radically violent for communities of color that live under perpetual threat “whether of police brutality, economic dispossession, food insecurity, criminal violence, or immigration raids.” Moreover, Shirin Sinnar in “Invoking ‘Terrorism’ Against Police Protestors” laments the othering of often racialized groups as “terrorists.” While other contributors, like Danielle Schulkin in “White Supremacist Infiltration of US Police Forces: Fact-Checking National Security Advisor O’Brien: It’s More Than ‘a few bad apples,’” critique attempts at absolution through the characterization of police violence in the United States as episodic. This series expands on these discussions with the goal of continuing to turn the emphasis from instances of prejudice or racial discrimination to one that is oriented toward subverting white hegemonic power and dominance.

The Contributors

By delving into the fundamental role of race, contributors to this series assist in more completely capturing the field and practice of national security. I hope these contributions spark and revitalize debates beyond the confines of this series. I am acutely aware of the historical moment that is unfolding in the United States and elsewhere. The contributors similarly recognize not only the gravity of this moment but the opening and potential that it presents. The series is set to run until the end of July 2020 with contributions generally published every other day.

Contributors to the series will race national security from several different vantage points:

  • Yuvraj Joshi on the potential and limitations of transitional justice as applied to addressing historical racial injustice in the United States (here).
  • Monica Bell on the complexities surrounding policing and the challenges conceptualizing and realizing security for Black people in the United States (here).
  • Aziza Ahmed on de-carceral efforts and the de-securitization of healthcare (here).
  • Michele Goodwin on the intersection of race, gender, class, health and national security (here).
  • Adelle Blackett on the implications of the uprising in the United States and racial justice at the United Nations and the International Labor Organization (here).
  • Kamari Clarke on international criminal law’s blind spots and limitations regarding addressing ongoing and historic racial injustice (here).
  • Jaya Ramji-Nogales on the relationships between race, migration, and national security (here).
  • Aslı Bâli on the deployment of the language, rhetoric, tools and framework of the “War on Terror” and in national security more generally to the uprising in the United States (here).
  • James Gathii on the national security apparatus’ historic suppression of anticolonial movements and the comparable attempt to suppress the uprising in the United States (here).
  • Catherine Powell on linkages between the struggles between U.S. civil rights and international human rights and the convergence and divergence between the two as anti-colonial movements that fundamentally question the meaning of security (here).
  • Noura Erakat on transnational solidarity in antiracism movements, linking military shoot-to-kill policies abroad to domestic policing in the United States and providing closing thoughts to the series (here).

By rendering race visible, the contributors in this series elucidate how race and the associated racial valuations attached to groups influence assessments of when it is in the interest of institutions, laws, and society to act on issues of national security. I hope these phenomenal offerings provoke and enrich readers. I know that the authors took the utmost care and thoughtfulness in managing these contributions. My hope is that this series helps to regenerate a concerted effort in transformative change and policymaking that is rooted in anti-subordination efforts.

Photo credit: Demonstrators protest Saturday, June 6, 2020, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) 

About the Author(s)

Matiangai Sirleaf

Nathan Patz Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law; Member of the Editorial Board of Just Security. Follow her on Twitter (@matiangai).