The Future

The racist language of space exploration

The language of colonialism is infecting outer space, thanks to dominance by rich white businessmen and politicians.
The Future

The racist language of space exploration

The language of colonialism is infecting outer space, thanks to dominance by rich white businessmen and politicians.

On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the National Space Council, outlined plans for creating the “Space Force” that President Donald Trump envisions as a space-dedicated military branch, complete with space warfighters and weapons, by the year 2020. Back in June, Trump explained the Space Force by using the language of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision which ruled that racial segregation was constitutional, giving states and municipalities the authority to enact Jim Crow laws.

"We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force, separate but equal, it is going to be something so important,” Trump said. He just as easily could have said, “The Space Force will be a branch of the military, like the Air Force,” but he did not.

Trump is far from the first or only person to use the language of colonization to make a pro-space venture argument. Elon Musk famously describes his plans for a Martian settlement as a “colony,” and a long lineage of space pundits, politicians, and thinkers invoke the history of colonizers and colonization in order to frame the future of humanity in space. During a July 25 hearing of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness titled “Destination Mars – Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet,” subcommittee head, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that he believes that the first trillionaire on earth will make their money from space exploration.

Is it possible to ethically explore space? Listen to Caroline Haskins discuss the possibilities on The Outline World Dispatch.

“I don’t know who it will be, and I don’t know what they will discover, or what they will accomplish,” Cruz said. “But I think it is every bit as vast and promising a frontier as the New World was some centuries ago.”

“You could argue that the effort to colonize space is likely to involve new forms of inequality: shifts in tax revenues and administrative priorities devoted to that,” said Michael Ralph, a professor of anthropology at NYU. “As opposed to [supporting] other social institutions that benefit people like health care, education, infrastructure.”

Earning money in space is an exciting prospect for a far-right, pro-business, anti-regulation politician like Cruz, and he explicitly associated it with European countries having colonized the Americas. Starting in the late 1400s, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal funded missions to the Americas in order to gather natural resources that would power up their economies. By stealing the land that made this resource extraction possible, colonizers used genocide, enslavement, biological weaponry, and warfare and that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of indigenous people living in the “New World.” The concept of race, and therefore racism, was invented as a way of justifying their violence and legitimizing a hierarchy of race-divided labor.

Based off of what we know right now, the Moon and Mars are devoid of life, so this colonizing language is not actually putting other beings at risk. But, there is the risk that the same racist mythology used to justify violence and inequality on earth — such as the use of frontier, “cowboy” mythology to condone and promote the murder and displacement of indigenous people in the American West — will be used to justify missions to space. In a future where humans potentially do live on non-earth planets, that same racist mythology would carry through to who is allowed to exist on, and benefit from, extraterrestrial spaces.

On Earth, and in the United States specifically, the ideal of a merit-based society has been used to justify race-blind hiring policies that fail to account for, say, the implicit bias against black or Asian-sounding names, or the legacy of segregation, which continues to make children of color more vulnerable to attending underfunded schools. Narratives of “law and order” have also been used to justify racial profiling and harsher prison sentences for people of color than for white people who commit the same crimes. Not nearly enough work has been done here on Earth to ensure that these structural inequalities wouldn’t carry through.

“Those narratives do carry specific implications about how people living on other worlds might be structured,” Lucianne Walkowicz, the current Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, told The Outline. Walkowicz organized the Decolonizing Mars Conference that took place on June 27 as well as a public follow-up event planned for September, to discuss how colonial language is shaping our potential future in space. “Space is not just built for nothing, it’s built for people.”

When we think about humanity’s potential to exist on other planets, it’s important to consider who won’t have access to space, in part due to a total lack of concern over these issues by people who are able to access it. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos intends to make space a place for the rich to use for adventure leisure, and SpaceX/Tesla founder Elon Musk has proposed that a Martian “colony” can save a selection of humanity from the collapse of civilization in some World War III scenario. Granted, right now, these are just words from billionaires who want to excite the public about their business ventures. But they suggest that if the economically and socially vulnerable are priced out of a life-saving journey from Earth, it is a justifiable loss.

“All of these things that are said off the cuff [by billionaires] have some implications that are concrete and count some people in, and some people out,” Walkowicz said.

Part of that concern is fueled by the fact that Cruz and Pence have presented the path to settling space as one that will be privately funded, but lead by the U.S. government. In the Destination Mars subcommittee meeting, Cruz said, “At the end of the day, the commercial sector is going to be able to invest billions more in dollars in getting this job [of getting to Mars] done.” In his Thursday remarks regarding the Space Force, Pence also implied that celestial territories would be treated as private property (even though owning private property in space is explicitly illegal per the Outer Space Treaty, which the U.S. and dozens of other nations signed in 1967).

“While other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law,” Pence said. “So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom into this new frontier.”

This approach to public-private partnerships directly mirrors colonist practices. For instance, the British East India Company violently colonized parts of India on behalf of the company, but over time, ownership of the stolen land shifted to Great Britain.

While these risks feel a part of a far away future, in the present, idealizing colonization as a positive, replicable aspect of American history speaks to an unsettling indifference from leaders about the violent history of colonization. And by referencing historical events that victimized people of color, leaders paint a vision of the future in which people of color continue to be excluded, Walkowicz said that the social and economic legacy of colonization is ignored.

By using narratives of adventurism and heroics, white Americans were able to convince other white Americans that they were not only entitled to steal and conquest land and persons, but that it was their destiny. Ralph said to The Outline that this mythology remains central to the way Americans conceptualize their history and culture.

“Colonization is portrayed as a heroic conquest,” Ralph said. “These practices are framed as central to American identity, essential to governance, politics, and all major social institution. But not depicted as a colonizing that is one caused by violence, displacement, dispossession.”

Even when people aren’t explicitly referring to settlements in space as “colonies,” they still use the rhetoric of colonizing the New World and the American frontier, which erases the stories of and violence against the people of color who lived and ranched in the region. But how did this language start being used in the first place?

Presidents have also used frontierism and colonialism to get white citizens behind their agenda. When President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to bring Americans to the Moon in 1962, he paraphrased one of the earliest colonists on the North American continent.

“William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage,” Kennedy said.

Bradford was the governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony at the time of the Pequot War. In an overnight attack, British colonizers massacred four hundred soldiers, non-soldiers, and children. Bradford later described the act of genocide as a Christian victory. “...victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prays therof to God,” Bradford wrote, “who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

Although Kennedy did not characterize his vision for the Moon as creating a “colony” specifically, the association he wanted to create is clear: The Moon is the next version of the New World, the next frontier for American conquest.

In his speech, Kennedy continues that men like Bradford teach us that “man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.” However, if “man” is a stand-in for “white colonizers,” “knowledge and progress” unabashedly brushes over the lives of indigenous persons and people of color that were lost in their quest to “explore.” It’s a profusely sanitized version of reality.

“It’s fascinating that a term like ‘colonizing’ can be seen in neutral terms when it can’t exist without violence and dispossession,” Ralph said. It can’t exist without violence to establish a political hierarchy. Every colonial project is about managing populations, subjugating people, extracting resources.”

But Kennedy was not the first person to use of colonizing language in the context of space. John Wilkins, one of the first people who ever theorized about humanity’s future in space, wrote “A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet” back in 1638, where he argued that the Moon will be a place for human habitation in the future. Although it was a piece of science fiction theorization at the time, Wilkins justified his argument by saying that God created the Earth and stars for people to use in his honor.

Colonizers are adventurers, Wilkins argues, whose ideals are worth replicating on other planets. “The invention of some other means for our convenience to the Moon cannot seem more incredible to us, than this did at first to them, to be discouraged in our hopes of the like success,” Wilkins wrote, admitting that any mission to the moon would be far in the future. “We have not now any [Sir Francis] Drake, or Columbus, to undertake this voyage, or any Daedalus to invent a convenience through the air.”

Sir Francis Drake was a slave-trader, and of course, Christopher Columbus is responsible for the genocide of almost 3 million people on the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

As space travel has become more technologically feasible, science-fiction writers have speculated about how a space society would actually function. Arthur C. Clarke envisioned that “colonial” would be a dirty word in space in his 1954 book Earthflight: “And to do [enter Solar politics], one had to go to Earth; as in the days of the Caesars, there was no alternative. Those who believed otherwise or pretended to — risked being tagged with the dreaded word ��colonial.’”

For Clarke, colonialism was equated with privilege in a space society, not because of racism and violence on Earth. Later in the novel, Clarke doesn’t hesitate to compare travelling between planets, and the nobility of doing so, with British colonizers travelling between continents in earlier centuries.

Adilifu Nama, a professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University who has written about the representation of race in science fiction, said that science fiction movies and books during the 1950s and 1960s often included narratives of invasion from alien lifeforms directly alongside conceptualizations of existing in other worlds. These anxious science fiction narratives became popular during the Civil Rights Movement.

“We had [an] invasion emerging [during the Civil Rights Movement] of black folks invading these once pristine white spaces: with public transportation, public schools, and eventually particular neighbourhoods and black folks having access to better, more upscale neighbourhoods,” Nama said. “So there is also this invasion society around racial purity, and the tensions of science fiction can be read not only as Cold War anxieties, but racial anxieties about the other.”

Ralph said to The Outline that the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s shouldn’t be seen as purely a nationalist competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union: it was also a distraction from the Civil Rights Movement.

“A lot of what we think of as the Space Race was the US and Russia competing as rivals for supremacy in space back in the 1950s, but also that movement was about civil rights and the struggle for justice for Americans,” Ralph said. “In a way, you could argue that space exploration has historically been used to shift public attention away from the struggle of social justice.”

According to Walkowicz, that people dip into the violent, racist history of colonialism and gloss over their language using a sense of adventure provided by the American frontier is no coincidence. “The people for whom the American frontier myth were constructed, who were primarily white men, also now have the narrative of space,“ Walkowicz said. “And because tech is so incredibly non-diverse, and has been so slow to change even in those small ways in which it has, I think a lot of those narratives go unquestioned.”

The people with the power to make a future in space possible, such as Trump, Pence, and Cruz, or the money to actually get us there, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are the same people who have and will always benefit from systemic racism and the potential economic glory from new economic ventures.

Ralph noted that prioritizing space travel undermines funding for sustainable forms of energy like wind and solar, and efficient ways to construct affordable houses and schools. It also has direct economic implications for the people who rely on any number of federally-funded social programs in the U.S.

“In Trump’s America, we have a lot of conservatives and even libertarians insisting there’s too much government spending on social programs, and yet Trump wants to use our federal funds to reinvigorate our space programs,” Ralph said. “Just like in the 1950s and 60s, [Trump] is using space exploration to cultivate nationalist sentiment and arguably shift questions away from questions of social justice and questions of inequality.”