Hate Racism? Oppose the CIA

The CIA made waves this week for a video that uses social justice language to try to gin up recruitment. But opposing racism and achieving social justice means opposing everything the CIA stands for.

The CIA’s appeals to notions of social justice are of course cynical and ridiculous but far from unique to this new recruitment video. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

This week, the CIA caused a stir thanks to a widely ridiculed recruitment ad featuring a young Latina officer using language popular in social justice circles. In the ad, the first-generation immigrant officer defiantly rejects the “imposter syndrome” she once struggled with in the office, refusing to “internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be” and declaring she will no longer “apologize for the space I occupy.”

“I am a woman of color, I am a mom, I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder,” she intones. “I am intersectional.”

It’s easy to see what’s going on here. US intelligence agencies have been markedly lagging when it comes to diversity compared to other parts of the federal government, which is neither ideal for optics nor for operational matters. This ad and the numerous others like it aim to entice a younger, more heterogeneous pool of college graduates to come to the agency, ones more likely to be steeped in the learning and language of historical oppression and its legacies and to hold broadly liberal social attitudes.

In fact, you the reader may well be the intended audience. You might be keenly aware of the blight of institutional racism in the United States, its long, ugly history, and how it continues to hold down people today. Maybe you see clearly the connections between (or the intersection of) different types of oppression — the way that poverty is made harder and more likely for those on the receiving end of racial oppression, for instance. Perhaps your own personal experience has helped you see this — the one too many male colleagues promoted ahead of you if you’re a woman, or the cautiousness with which you must negotiate every police interaction if you’re black.

If so, the CIA’s cynical attempt to push your buttons shouldn’t lead you to abandon your political commitments. Rather, it should make you stay as far as humanly possible from agencies like the CIA and spur you to truly realize them by demanding radical change in US foreign policy.

This isn’t necessarily about the CIA’s own notorious history, though of course, that’s no small thing. After all, this is an agency whose lengthy index of scandals roughly starts with the recruitment of former Nazis and other war criminals and has included at various times assassinations, election tampering, coups, and the funding of death squads.

The resulting violence and oppression hit people in the Global South the hardest: like in Guatemala, where the agency trained and backed the security forces that carried out a genocide against the country’s indigenous population. The rampant abuses of the “war on terror” remind us this isn’t ancient history: look up the stories of people like Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn or Khaled El-Masri, kidnapped, brutally tortured by the CIA, and detained for years on end because the agency mistook them for people they weren’t.

But set aside the specific horrors enacted by the CIA for a moment. If you believe the United States is a country riven with structural racism, and that this is one of the biggest issues that it must finally face up to and resolve, then expunging the militarism that has dominated US foreign policy for over a century should be one of your top concerns. As designed and used by the Washington elite, the US military is an immense and extremely violent vehicle for exactly this kind of oppression.

This was the very realization Martin Luther King made shortly before he was murdered, declaring his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech. King had largely stayed out of foreign policy matters until seeing a photo essay depicting the ravages of US napalm on Vietnamese children stirred his conscience.

Responding to those who accused him of hurting the civil rights cause by criticizing the war, King argued the two were intertwined. The war did profound spiritual damage to the country, he warned, making it impossible to “save the soul of America,” as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s motto had impelled since 1957. On a material level, the war siphoned man power and resources from the fight against poverty “like some demonic destructive suction tube,” while its use of violence for political change undermined his own arguments for the power of nonviolence. Other radical black leaders came to similar conclusions, such as Malcolm X, who by the end of his life viewed black oppression in the United States as inextricable from the struggle by colonized people against the “international Western power structure.”

There is a growing push for the United States to fully face up to the genocide that European settlers carried out against Native Americans as they chased the frontier. But America’s brutal adventures overseas have been just the next stage of this terrible process, expanding that frontier beyond the country’s borders to acquire resources by force and produce the same violence and the same racist, macho belief systems.

This expansionist foreign policy has had blowback for racial justice at home. Whether it’s World War I, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, or the “war on terror,” conflicts between the United States and another nation or foreign group — and the demonization of foreign peoples it demands — have fanned the flames of racial hate and violence on the home front. It’s no coincidence that anti-Asian violence has spiked as Trump and Biden have ramped up confrontation with China, the latter casting it as a menace bent on global domination that must be stopped.

In other words, if it’s to mean anything, a belief in racial justice can’t simply cease to exist the moment one starts to think outside of US borders, just as a belief in institutional racism can’t simply leave out the US government’s most powerful institution. It means being as outraged at the murders of Palestinians by a military funded and backed by Washington as by the murders of African-Americans by American police. It means opposing the artificially induced starvation of people in Iran and Venezuela as steadfastly as one opposes hunger and deprivation of medicine inside the United States.

The CIA’s appeals to notions of social justice are of course cynical and ridiculous and far from unique to this video. But they’re a useful reminder. If you believe the things the profiled CIA officer claims to stand for, then you have no choice but to work to radically shift US foreign policy away from everything the CIA prefers it to be.