If Not Brittney Griner, Who Should US National Security Value?

Responses to Griner’s release reveal how little the US thinks about Black women.

Brittney Griner’s release from Russian captivity should have evoked universal sighs of relief across political ideologies, but it was immediately clear that that would not be the case. Soon after news broke of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) superstar’s exchange for Viktor Bout, the notorious criminal arms dealer who is dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” the intellectually lazy, culturally incompetent, and morally inconsistent critiques followed.

Some folks online cynically decried the swap between Griner and Bout because she should have known better than to have violated Russia’s drug laws. (Griner says she mistakenly packed a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage while preparing for her trip to Russia.) Republican leaders in Congress, notability potential Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, assailed the move, arguing that we “left a Marine behind,” referencing Paul Whelan, who many hoped would be freed along with Griner. He has been imprisoned in Russia since 2020 on charges of espionage that are widely viewed as false. Others in the think tank world have argued that the swap sets a bad precedent because it will encourage authoritarian governments to kidnap Americans in hopes of gaining geopolitical leverage against Washington and the West in the future. The move, some argue, emboldens rogue leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While the latter argument raises some legitimate concerns, the chorus of negative reactions to Griner’s release reveals how little our country thinks about Black women. The moral inconsistencies around patriotism (and to whom it is extended) and the dearth of race analysis amongst the white elite in the national security community also point to the inequality.

VOICES AGAINST THE RELEASE

Let’s start with the moral inconsistency around patriotism. Virtually all of the right-wing talking heads attacked the Griner-Bout swap, citing the basketball player’s opinion that she would not stand for the national anthem. Mind you, these are the same media types who have twisted themselves into knots defending Jan. 6 insurrectionists whose actions lead to the death of an officer repelling their domestic terrorism. (Aren’t these the folks who are supposed to love cops?) Then you have the Republicans who ran their 2022 midterm election campaigns on the myth that the 2020 presidential election results were rigged for Biden. This is also a party that, according to the Brennan Center, actively passes legislation that makes it harder for people of color, the poor, and the disabled to vote. And let’s not even get started with the GOP’s obsession with white nationalism, which the Department of Homeland Security says is the single biggest domestic threat to national security. Yet, the wider Republican Party — especially the far-right of the GOP — has coalesced around and benefited from Donald Trump’s white supremacy.

Getting Griner home, no matter what, was sound, moral, and shrewd politics that Black people should expect for their political capital.

Griner voiced an opinion that challenged the United States’ devotion to her personhood. These faux patriots have galvanized a movement around overthrowing the US government. The biggest threat to US national security isn’t the Russian terrorist the White House swapped for Griner; its the white men and women here in the United States who were OK with a cop dying while supporting an insurrection and folks undermining the electoral process with their rampant and seething racism.

I also find it interesting to see what people think the United States should value. Russia wanted a murderous terrorist who kills innocent people and sells weapons of death to criminals. The United States wanted a queer, Black-female basketball star known for her community work and a role model to all Americans, including the marginalized among us.

Those who oppose the swap clearly show who and what they don’t value, that’s for sure.

As for the folks whining about Griner making more money in the WNBA than the average American in their jobs and dismissing pay equity between the National Basketball Association (NBA), get over yourselves. Most Americans aren’t professional-caliber athletes who can command more of the market share in their field as Griner can in hers, for example. But that’s another story. I won’t get into the tedious discourse over WNBA pay, but here is the bottom line: professional athletes should not play in Russia because it is a national security issue.

The Biden administration had to do what the WNBA or NBA could not do, which was to negotiate Griner’s release. Though the nearly a dozen WNBA players who played in Russia last year are going elsewhere, the WNBA, NBA, and other professional athletic bodies need to take a deeper look into the politics of the countries where their athletes may get more financial reward but encounter greater political risk. No amount of money is worth the possibility of being picked as a political pawn when a government finds it convenient. I truly believe that if it were not for the Black leadership in the Biden administration and Black women advocating for her release, Griner would still be languishing in a Russian penal colony — especially in a Republican-controlled environment. McCarthy and the right wing of his party have made that very evident.

Finally, we have to address the cultural incompetence of it all.

Biden’s leadership on Ukraine is as good as it gets, and no other candidate running for president in the 2020 election would have crafted a better response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine than him. The military aid and diplomatic support Ukraine is getting, and the geopolitical negotiations between Washington and Europe that favors Kyiv are all possible because of Biden’s decades of experience. None of this would be a reality without the political support of Black women, two-thirds of whom turned out to vote in the 2020 election and are widely regarded as the single most powerful voting group in US politics. South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn is credited with winning his state, which has a high Black population, and will likely replace Iowa as the first state in the Democratic presidential primary in 2024 for Biden.

PATRIOTISM DOES EXTEND TO BLACK PEOPLE

Politically, it was vital that Biden negotiated a deal for Griner’s release because Black people needed to see its government make sacrifices for one of their own. We know what the United States is willing to sacrifice to protect white America; this was the perfect opportunity to show that patriotism extends to Black folk like Griner. I consider myself an advocate for Ukraine and have said from day one that Kyiv has the attitude to defeat Russia. What is also true is that Ukraine is performing beyond expectations because of massive support from the Biden administration that Black America is widely responsible for electing into office.

Getting Griner home, no matter what, was sound, moral, and shrewd politics that Black people should expect for their political capital.

US national security has never truly considered the safety of Black Americans. Be it the disproportionate police killings of Black people, disparities in healthcare, racism in employment, or historical white supremacy in general, our security is rarely given priority. That Griner has been the rare exception should be celebrated by all who truly care about national security. Whelan should have been released, and I hope that he is eventually. I also thank Whelan’s family for challenging bad-faith arguments pushing divisions between their loved one and Griner. It is clear that patriotism that galvanizes around the uniform Whelan once wore as a US Marine almost never extends to those like Griner, whose liberty as an American deserves the same respect and care.

If you are one of the detractors who feel that the deal to release Griner was a mistake, you should do some soul-searching about who you think deserves the support of the United States’ national security apparatus and who does not.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is the host and founder of Black Diplomats, a podcast that discusses foreign policy from a social justice perspective. He has written about foreign policy and domestic politics in The Washington Post, Daily Beast, New York Times, and other publications. He regularly appears on MSNBC and CNN to discuss the Russian invasion in Ukraine and other foreign policy issues. Starr was recently selected for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Diversity in National Security Network (DINSN) 2022 US National Security & Foreign Affairs Leadership List. He is also a resident of Inkstick’s and Bombshelltoe’s Creative Capsule Residency.