Are US drone strikes racially biased? Does public support fall along a “color line” where Americans endorse drone strikes the most when they are used against darker-skinned people in non-Western countries? Many scholars think so. Keith Feldman contends that drones are a form of “racialization from above.” John Emery and Daniel Brunstetter argue that drones exercise “aerial occupation,” which other experts, such as Shala Cachelin, believe is a form of neocolonialism. For other critics, the “unambiguously” racist nature of US drone strikes has contributed to unequal relations between countries. John Williams claims that drones are “Western-centric, racialized, and exclusionary toward non-Western modes of politics”; Alex Cooley adds that drones “and the expansion of a supporting basing infrastructure constitute another type of hidden hierarchy in the US security network”; and, Katherine Chandler concludes drones “re-enact racial and colonial hierarchies through transnational networks and grounded relations that connect militarism to everyday life.”
On its surface, the argument that US drone strikes are racially biased seems sensible. The intended targets are mostly people of color who live in non-Western countries. Indeed, critics often point to targets’ skin color and location when arguing public support for US drone strikes is shaped by racial preferences. But critics have not validated this claim with data informed by public attitudes. Missing from the conversation on race and drones is an assessment of if, or to what degree, the observable racial cues of targets’ skin color and location shape public support for US drone strikes. Studying this question is important. Though drones are appealing from a policy perspective, reducing the financial costs of intervening abroad while protecting soldiers and minimizing civilian casualties, racial preferences may shape approval for strikes that have the potential to heighten grievances among targeted communities, prolong conflict, and embed racism in global politics.
Recently, we conducted a study to assess if US drone strikes are racially biased. We found that Americans who have a racist worldview, reflected through our use of the widely validated Racial Resentment Scale, are more likely to support US drone strikes regardless of targets’ skin color and location. We also found that other Americans do not calibrate their support for US drone strikes based on the observable racial cues of targets’ skin color and location. Rather, providing these details on a target can actually decrease public support for US drone strikes. This means that the way US officials frame these operations, often deemphasizing the targets’ humanity, matters a lot for public support. At the same time, Americans draw on numerous other considerations—instrumental, normative, and operational—when adjudicating their support for US drone strikes. Thus, our study paints a more complicated, yet also more complete, picture of the relationship between race and public support for US drone strikes than critics’ existing narrative reflects.
Race and US Drone Strikes
For critics, the racially biased nature of US drone strikes is reflected by Americans’ puzzling endorsement of these operations in some cases but not others. Though Americans broadly support US drone strikes abroad, they also disapprove of them when they target US citizens, even if they are suspected of being terrorists. In 2011, for example, President Barack Obama authorized a drone strike to kill a US citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who served in an important media role for al-Qaeda. The strike also killed another US citizen, Samir Khan, who claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda as well. It did not matter to Americans that the US Department of Justice certified the operation. Americans were outraged because Obama’s use of a drone to kill al-Awlaki and Khan circumvented their constitutional right to due process in a court of law, and raised questions about the president’s authority to use drones within the United States.
Other skeptics of US drone strikes were also appalled, but for a different reason. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist, asked if anyone doubts that if drones “were killing nice white British teenagers or smiling blond Swiss infants—rather than unnamed Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Somalis—that the reaction to this sustained killing would be drastically different.” Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist at Princeton University, recently added that there is “good reason to be skeptical of the way tech cheerleaders feign innocence when it comes to the racial dimensions of” emerging technologies, including drones.
This line of reasoning, though it seems intuitive, can be misleading for two reasons. First, the targets of US drone strikes are mostly suspected terrorists in war-torn countries across Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East that are Brown or Black. This means it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess if racial preferences shape Americans’ support to strikes without directly asking them. Second, it is also difficult to determine exactly why Americans may not support US drone strikes in Europe. Is it because of the strength of relations forged between predominately White countries on either side of the Atlantic Ocean? Or, is it because of the assumption that terrorists in Europe are White, though in many cases they are not? Other factors may also be at play. Since 9/11, US officials have only used drones in “fragile” or “failing” states, meaning authorities there have been unwilling or unable to pursue terrorists that wish to harm Americans.
Exploring Public Support for US Drone Strikes
We recently tested the claim that Americans support US drone strikes based on the observable racial characteristics of targets’ skin color and location. We did so by administering an original image-based survey experiment among US citizens. In our survey, which we conducted in February 2023, we randomly assigned each participant to a hypothetical but realistic drone strike scenario. Each scenario presented to a participant either identified the location of the strike as one of three countries—Estonia, Peru, or South Africa—or provided no information on the geographic setting of an operation.
We also varied the skin color of a target using an image taken by a real drone. The drone photo was professionally rendered to alter the skin color of a target, which can be Brown, Black, or White. We also included a black-and-white image that mimics how drones often observe a target with electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors, meaning that the target has no identifiable skin color. By showing US citizens a picture of the target, which was superimposed with drone targeting metadata, we compelled them to carefully review the image when assessing their level of support. After reading their randomized scenario, Americans were asked the following question: “Do you support the US president’s use of a drone strike in this setting?” They answered using a five-point scale ranging from “strongly support” (5) to “strongly oppose” (1).
We then used common statistical methods to analyze the data and found that Americans are more likely to support a US drone strike when given no information on the target’s skin color and location. In other words, when shown a militarized image that strips the target of an identifiable skin color, and given no indication of the target’s location, Americans are more likely to support a US drone strike. When provided with these details, on the other hand, we observe that Americans largely disapprove of a US drone strike. Next, we specifically explored if geography proxies for race, as critics argue it does. We also found that the location of a target does not shape public support for a US drone strike. If the observable racial characteristics of a target’s skin color and location do not shape Americans’ support for a US drone strike, what does? We address this question by studying a number of beliefs and values that may underlie Americans’ overall attitudes for US drone strikes. In doing so, we offer a more nuanced understanding of public support for US drone strikes than critics of these operations usually present.
We found that Americans who demonstrate higher racial resentment and ethnocentrism, implying they view global politics as a competition between an in-group and out-group, are more likely to support US drone strikes than those who do not. In forming their judgments, however, these Americans do not reflect on targets’ skin color and location. Rather, these and other Americans draw on multiple other considerations that relate to the United States’ place in the world, how US officials should operate globally, and the purpose of US military force. Consistent with existing drone warfare scholarship, we found that Americans’ support for US drone strikes can be shaped by their support for the use of force abroad, endorsement of US unilateral military actions globally, and belief that US officials have a moral obligation to intervene abroad. Americans also carefully consider the accuracy of intelligence justifying a drone strike, the likelihood for civilian casualties following a strike, and the perceived threat to US security imposed by a target when forming their opinions about an operation.
Reframing the Drone Debate
These results also suggest that the way US drone strikes are depicted has important implications for US citizens’ attitudes, which can reflect either endorsement of or opposition to these operations. This is consistent with what scholars call a “framing effect.” By referring to targets of US drone strikes as “extremists” or “terrorists,” and providing no further information, national polls and political officials overestimate public support to these operations. Simultaneously, critics often conflate public support for US drone strikes with racial preferences. Rather, we find that Americans draw on a range of factors when forming their support to US drone strikes that are not reducible to the racial cues of targets’ skin color and location.
Together, our findings have cascading implications for US counterterrorism policy. A false sense about the degree of “consensus” for drone strikes helps explain why political officials frequently conduct these operations abroad, although they are incapable of achieving military victory against terrorist groups on their own. A distorted understanding of Americans’ support for drone strikes also helps explain why political officials often dissemble about these operations abroad, reasonably assured of continued public approval. An inflated appreciation of public attitudes for drone strikes may also help clarify why political officials fail to hold military commanders publicly responsible for preventable targeting errors that result in civilian casualties, as was the case following the botched US drone strike in Afghanistan in August 2021 that killed ten Afghan civilians rather than a suspected Islamic State terrorist.
Yet such accountability is integral to the perceived legitimacy of US drone strikes, especially because they have largely been used against Brown and Black people during counterterrorism operations that began after 9/11. As such, Americans need to demand greater congressional oversight of US drone strikes, in which the merits—and limits—of these operations are publicly discussed and scrutinized. Until this happens, we will continue to misunderstand the complicated relationship between race and public attitudes for these operations.
Paul Lushenko, PhD is a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, deputy director of the Cornell University Brooks School’s Tech Policy Institute, and coeditor of the recently published volume, Drones and Global Order: Implications of Remote Warfare for International Society.
Keith L. Carter, PhD is a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and director of the Defense and Strategic Studies Program at the United States Military Academy.
Srinjoy Bose, PhD is a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and coeditor of the recently published volume, Drones and Global Order: Implications of Remote Warfare for International Society.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Senior Airman Haley Stevens, US Air Force