Not three years ago, Brittney Griner refused to take the floor when the WNBA played the national anthem before tipoff. “I think we should take that much of a stand,” she said at the time, arguing that “basketball doesn’t mean anything in a world where we can’t just live. We can’t wake up and do whatever we want to do.” Such is the plight, she said, of being black in America.
Yet it was in part Griner’s race, as well as her sexual orientation—she is a lesbian—that made her detention by Russia in February a high-profile news story and turned her case into a cause célèbre for activists and journalists, but we repeat ourselves.
It is also why the Biden administration on Thursday struck an ill-advised deal to trade Griner’s freedom for that of Viktor Bout, an arms dealer and weapons smuggler who was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to murder American citizens. Not included in the deal was Russia’s release of Paul Whelan, a white, cisgender, heterosexual former Marine arrested in late 2018 on trumped-up charges. For all of Griner’s complaints about being black in this country, she’s gotten far better treatment than her white counterpart.
Whelan told CNN in a phone interview Thursday from a remote Russian penal colony that “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
Then there are the merits of the deal itself. Griner will be greeted as a hero when she touches down in the United States, but the Russian who will walk free is a dangerous thug who has earned his nickname: “The Merchant of Death.” His release will do grievous harm to American national security—he was convicted for attempting to sell weapons to Colombian terrorists who would have used them to target American troops—and Politico reports that Pentagon officials are already raising the specter that his release will fuel “conflicts across the world.” Griner is no hero.
So how did this happen? The Russians concluded correctly that the Biden administration’s foreign policy is best understood through the lens of “antiracism.” The concept, popularized by Ibram X. Kendi, justifies new discrimination to account for historic discrimination. The decision to exchange a lesbian millionaire of color for a notorious arms trafficker at the expense of a Caucasian cisgendered Marine is consistent with this administration’s values. After all, Biden on his first day in office signed an executive order to advance racial equity throughout the federal government.
The problem with this approach is that it aims to remedy an abstract, historical injustice by perpetrating a tangible injustice in the present. Biden’s approach to negotiations should have been guided by the facts of Griner’s and Whelan’s cases and by the national interest. He was instead guided by identity politics and “antiracism.” Paul Whelan is paying the price.