Why Aren’t We Hearing More About the 7 Million Displaced Congolese People?
Photo: aboodi vesakaran / Unsplash

Why Aren’t We Hearing More About the 7 Million Displaced Congolese People?

Is this yet another case of racially selective empathy?

The war in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas, a conflict with wide-sweeping consequences, is the geopolitical moment caught in the spotlight here in America. And rightfully so. In the wake of thousands of civilian casualties, political leaders have called for a ceasefire. Yet for as heartbreaking and outraging as these conflicts have been, it’s hard to ignore the idea that the racial identity of those involved in the aforementioned conflicts have played a role in the news coverage and attention they’re receiving. 

Sadly, despite 7 million people displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo—the result of a decades-long civil war over territory and natural resources—their plight has not broken into the news cycle with the same vigor as the war in the Middle East or the Russia/Ukraine war. Seriously, ask the next person you speak with about the conflict in the Congo. You’ll likely perceive a little tension in their forehead, a forlorn look of bewilderment. While the relevance of each of these global conflicts is undeniable, the disparate coverage of the war in the Congo illustrates an unavoidable case of racially selective empathy. 

Numerically speaking, more people have lost their lives and have been displaced by the conflict in the Congo than in Russia, Ukraine, Israel, or Gaza. So what else, other than racism, could explain the disparate coverage these conflicts have received? Are American audiences less interested in what happens to Congolese people when compared to Ukrainians, Israelis, or Palestinians, or is the racism in the newsrooms to blame? What came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s hard to tell. One thing is for sure: More Americans need to be aware of what’s happening in the Congo, a humanitarian disaster unfolding in real time.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is a nation wealthy in natural resources. However, the high prevalence of minerals such as copper, cobalt, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold has made the country a target for internal and external exploitation, ultimately diminishing the quality of life for citizens living there. Such is often the case with African nations, filled with the natural wealth of resources subsequently deprived of the power to leverage those materials into improved living conditions and opportunities for economic stability and growth. Despite minerals from the Congo helping to create some of the world’s most popular electronic products (such as cell phones)), most people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are immensely poor. In 2022, one study showed 62% of Congolese—a number that amounts to approximately 60 million people—had $2.15 a day to survive off of, and one out of six people are “living in extreme poverty.” The government, which conflicts with armed militant groups in the East, has attempted to pass policies that would improve the lives of citizens “through the roll-out of free primary education, increased transparency, and public sector reforms,” the possibility for “universal health coverage,” while emphasizing on “conflict prevention and stabilization.” Still, the majority of Congolese have yet to feel the impact of this policy shift.

Elections are scheduled for this month, and 24 candidates have thrown their names in the hat. Many in the international community have suggested the last elections weren’t conducted democratically. The Financial Times reported: “Congo voting data reveal[ed] huge fraud in poll to replace Kabila,” suggesting Felix Tshisekedi, the current president, unlawfully took the position. While his presidency has been celebrated as the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history, the doubt cast upon the legitimacy of this election has continued to overshadow his leadership. But you will be a lot more likely to hear Americans talk about the impact that the Israel-Hamas conflict will have on our nation’s presidential election next year than you would hear about anyone’s policies in or regarding the Congo.

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According to a White House press release, Biden’s administration “welcomes and intends to monitor these DRC and Rwandan steps toward de-escalation and plans to support diplomatic and intelligence engagements between both countries to foster greater security and prosperity.” This sentiment seems conciliatory, but is anyone pushing the administration to see if the United States could do more, if we should be spending more on humanitarian aid to the country or extending opportunities for refugees who’ve been displaced as a result of the war? Not so much. You won’t find any trending topics about a ceasefire for the groups embattled in the Democratic Republic of Congo on social media, despite the high rate of casualties, 5.4 million lives since 1998, a horrendous number. Since the Russian invasion, the United States has accepted 271,000 Ukrainian refugees, which exceeded Biden’s goal of admitting 100,000. Between 2013 and 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration announced an initiative to “resettle approximately 50,000 Congolese refugees in the United States” over five years. When you consider the vast population differences between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine, you will see why these numbers put a fine point on America’s racially selective empathy. When White refugees are in trouble abroad, the nation’s foreign policies seem much more amicable compared to when Black refugees need help. More even, the news of humanitarian struggles that impact Black people struggle to find airtime, while those that impact White people seem to dominate the news cycle for months on end.

If Americans are going to get frustrated or radicalized by knowledge of human rights injustices abroad, they should also be concerned that citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being killed, physically abused, and disenfranchised. They have an election on the horizon during uncertain times, when most Congolese do not have enough food to eat, or a guaranteed home at which to rest. The world has taken so much from the Congo, an area that is wealthy in natural resources. It’s wrong to stay silent about what’s happening there, which only maintains the status quo. While millions have been killed and displaced, many outlets can’t seem to prioritize the conflict, and I can’t help but see that as indicative of racially selective empathy.