Why the Rwandan Genocide Seemed like a Drive-By Shooting: The Crisis of Race, Culture, and Policy in the African Diaspora

Article excerpt

Introduction

This essay addresses several cultural factors surrounding the absence of American intervention in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. The assertion that the Rwandan genocide seemed like a drive-by shooting is not used to describe how the Interhamwe rolled down the streets of Kigali in a tricked-out 1987 Chevy Caprice, indiscriminately killing Tutsi bystanders. Likewise, the metaphor is not employed to describe the ruthlessness of the Interhamwe who mercilessly hacked thousands of innocent Tutsi women and children to death with machetes until the roads were plastered with bloodstained mud and the ditches clogged with severed flesh. The simile of a drive-by shooting is a reference to how many Americans perceived the horrendous tragedy in Rwanda against the immediate background of gangsta rap, racial strife, pervasive stereotyping, and cultural misconceptions. The goal of the essay is to present an international perspective on the relevance of Africana Studies as a tool in analyzing foreign policy.

Much of the Western world's public perception of Africa is filtered through cultural lenses and dominant political priorities. Equally dominant is a popularization of continental tragedies and catastrophe. Browse the bookshelf at any major bookstore and the small space dedicated to African issues will be overflowing with books addressing one crisis or another. Surrounded on either side you will run into healthy sections on African American fiction and sometimes, if you are lucky, you will encounter the nonfiction section neatly filled with works in African American Studies.

Many of those with an interest in the African world are delighted whenever attention is given to discussion of African people. However, the floor plan of modern mega-bookstores reveals a more complex issue that is rooted in the way that Americans perceive people of African descent. Similar to the way that the layout of the big-box bookstore sandwiches works on African issues between the alluring, exotic and often sensational works of African-American fiction, historically policymakers have confronted issues of the African with dramatic and often distorted dispositions.

In the last 15 years particularly, a "whack-a-mole" policy approach to the continent has emphasized the drama of sporadic crises and an infatuation with quick policy solutions for long-term problems. In many ways, this approach mirrors the history of policy approaches to African Americans. Substituting spotty reforms and pledging greater support, Washington has created a patchwork of irregular policies instead of employing a comprehensive policy approach to human rights issues in the continent that acknowledges the longstanding impact of colonial policies. This negligence is particularly troubling since modern Africa traces many of its most challenging problems to the trials of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism (Boahen 1987: 99-101).

The short-term, crisis-oriented approach to African policy is dangerous because it undermines the complexity of the issues and prolongs suffering through unnecessary delay and repeated mistakes. While the African experience is broad enough to demand a more nuanced analysis than it now receives, at a glance, one must concede that Washington's policy approach with regard to black Americans (i.e. Americans of African descent living in the United States, slave descended or otherwise) and black indigenous Africans reveals some shocking similarities.

Addressing similarities in apartheid and segregation, George Fredrickson's comparative work on white supremacy in South Africa and the U.S., has offered a distinctive and important framework on the global dimension of race. While an interesting amount of scholarly attention has been devoted to interpreting the survival of African culture in the United States and the Americas (Holloway 1990: ix-240; M'Baye 2002: 66-77; Stuckey 1987: 78-79), few have successfully attempted to incorporate findings on race, policy and culture into transnational analyses of the nation-state. …