Prosecuting Race Provocateurs: Bolsonaro, Trump, and Others

Photograph Source: Palácio do Planalto – CC BY 2.0

In 2002, the U.N. established a Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent to “study the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the diaspora” and to draft proposals on the elimination of racial discrimination against people of African descent. Originating from the slave trade and the associated stereotypes, people of African descent confront racism throughout the world, more severely than any other racial group. Based on the studies of the Working Group, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in December 2013 to launch the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). The resolution reiterated “that any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous and must be rejected.” Right amid the International Decade, crimes against African Americans shock Americans and the peoples of the world.


Outside Africa, the largest concentration of people of African descent lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, where estimates reach 150 million, while the U.S. and Canada house over 40 million people of African descent. More recently, Africans have immigrated to various parts of the world, including Europe and Asia. People of African descent comprise a rich diversity of cultures, histories, and religions, but what unites them is a global pattern of inequality and racial discrimination. Per the U.N. Human Rights High Commission, people of African descent throughout the world make up “some of the most marginalized” communities.

Worldwide, from the Americas to Europe to China, people of African descent face various patterns of Afrophobia. Discrimination ranges from social prejudice to de facto segregation, denial of economic opportunities, inequality before the law, underrepresentation in political processes, barriers to the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, exclusion from the labor markets, disproportionate incarceration, significant police brutality, and intergenerational poverty.

In the U.S., the patterns of discrimination against African Americans have been the most relentless. Over the centuries, American presidents, lawmakers, judges, and academics have endorsed the lethal means of oppression. After enduring enslavement, lynching, and legal persecution, African Americans are free citizens under the U.S. constitution but continue to suffer unprecedented abuse. Legal instruments, such as stop and frisk, no-knock warrants, reasonable suspicion, and probable cause, though general in scope, turn sharper and arbitrary to detain and kill African Americans in shocking disproportions.

Identifying Race Provocateurs

In its latest 2019 report (a report that must be mandatory reading for the global lawyers, journalists, and opinion writers), the Working Group furnishes a harrowing story of discrimination against Africans from China and Japan to the Americas. It fearlessly identifies ugly race provocateurs, including Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Victor Orban, Alexander Gauland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Jair Bolsonaro, Steve King, Ron Desantis, and Donald Trump. These provocateurs publicly express racial hostility against people of African descent.

While discrimination against Africans is widespread, an international guild of race provocateurs holding influential political positions aggravates the patterns of abuse against people of African descent. Political leaders command influence over the followers. Racist leaders provoke racism, and Afrophobic leaders single out Africans as targets of bigotry. Some are discreet Afrophobes, while some publicly peddle Afrophobia.

Take, for example, Bolsonaro and Trump, the presidents of Brazil and the U.S., the two countries with brutal African slave history. The 2019 Working Group report highlights these Afrophobic presidents.

Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, is a brazen race provocateur. Brazil is a multiracial country that officially defines its population of over 200 million in four skin colors: white, brown, black, and yellow. The people who identify themselves as “black” are 13 million and “brown” 83 million. Despite a sizable population of people of African descent in both black and brown skin colors, Bolsonaro calls refugees from Haiti and Africa “the scum of humanity.” About the descendants of African slaves, he says: “They do nothing; They are not even good for procreation.” Bolsonaro ridicules black activists as “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.”

In the U.S., Trump and Trumpists have no regret in smearing people of African descent. The Working Group singles out Steve King, Ron Desantis, and Donald Trump for evoking racial stereotypes and harping on the “perceived lower intellectual capacity of the people of African descent.” Trump, exploiting the office of the presidency, arouses the most graphic sentiments to put down the people of African descent. He calls African countries as “shitholes” disparaging an entire continent. Trump boldly generalizes that recent immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS” and that the Nigerians would never “go back to their huts” in Africa. The Working Group mentions a Trump tweet sent on 14 July 2019, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” “They” in the Trump tweet were the Congresswomen of African descent.

The Working Group must be admired for its daring 2019 report, naming names, and providing historical and social contexts in which highly influential leaders of the world engage in racial incitements. Naming race provocateurs is imperative. Calling out the U.S. president for race incitements is unprecedented. Race provocateurs cannot hide behind free speech to enflame the persecution of people of African descent. Their words endorse discrimination. Their statements encourage small operators from police officers to vigilantes to perpetrate crimes against people of African descent.

In addition to naming the Trumps and Bolsonaros of the world, the national and international media must unmask less prominent but no less infectious race provocateurs in their nations and communities. Catching small demons is as crucial as capturing the big beasts. Steve King, a race provocateur from Iowa, when exposed for his racial bigotry, lost the Iowa primaries in his bid for the tenth term to the House of Representatives. The credit goes to the ethically committed journalists who exposed King and to the people of Iowa who voted him out. Public exposure is an insufficient but valuable initial punishment for race provocateurs.

Investigative journalists committed to racial justice can gather evidence of wrongdoings that race provocateurs perpetrate. Journalists may safely assume that race provocateurs are inciting race crimes and other race-related wrongdoings. Likewise, state intelligence agencies may use undercover activities and conduct intelligence operations, which are appropriate to carry out law enforcement responsibilities for documenting actionable incitements and wrongdoings by race provocateurs.

Going After Race Provocateurs

Race provocateurs warrant “going after” no differently than drug traffickers and terrorists. If the individuals involved in terrorism and drug trafficking can face investigations, prosecutions, and sanctions, so can the individuals inciting crimes against marginalized civilian populations. The journalists and lawyers have moral, legal, and ethical obligations to highlight the crimes against the African diaspora facing persecution in various countries of the world.

In wartime or peacetime, the persecution of a civilian population, such as people of African descent, is a crime against humanity punishable under the Rome Statute.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), which has jurisdiction under the Rome Statute over crimes against humanity, needs to assert its authority to hold top world leaders accountable for racial provocations that lead to murderous vigilantism and police brutality. Big countries, such as the U.S., act like bullies to escape criminal liability. Catching big bullies is never easy. Letting them go is never an option.

Ms. Fatou Bensouda, and African lawyer and the ICC prosecutor, needs the support of the media and lawyers across the world for her courageous effort to investigate war crimes against the U.S. and Israel. Bensouda can also work toward implementing crimes against humanity, particularly crimes against people of African descent. The peoples of the world will support if Bensouda goes after race provocateurs.

There must be a legal threat hanging over race provocateurs, much like Damocles sword.

In addition to the ICC, national prosecutors must do their job in charging race provocateurs with incitement crimes. Free speech is no barrier in prosecuting individuals who, employing their tremendous political influence, incite discrimination, hostility, and crimes against people of African descent. Police brutality is traceable to political incitements. The prosecutors need to work harder to find the hidden links in the chain of incitement.

Private lawyers can employ creative legal resources to sue race provocateurs. For example, the Iowa lawyers committed to racial justice must join their heads to see if they can bring a valid lawsuit against Steve King for the infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death, racial harassment, or other tortious injuries. Race provocateurs must be presumed to be criminals. Likewise, the Florida lawyers committed to racial justice may investigate the conduct of Governor Desantis. The lawyers must assume that Desantis engaged in promoting racial hatred against people of African descent is provoking police brutality, murderous vigilantism, and other enforcement discrimination.


Just like most other criminals, race provocateurs leave behind the evidence of wrongdoing. The journalists, prosecutors, and private lawyers committed to racial justice need to unearth racial provocations leading to actionable harm and act upon the evidence.

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Liaquat Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy, a firm dedicated to the protection of civil rights and human liberties. Send your comments and question to legal. scholar. academy[at] gmail.com

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