The spiraling war in the West African country of Mali has now involved Western military forces, principally airpower and ground troops from former colonial master France, as well as military equipment from Britain, the United States and other allies.

However, even before the intervention by Europeans and other Westerners, the conflict in Mali was already complex -- a hodgepodge of Islamist and separatist groups in the vast northern region of the desert country engaged in a battle with government troops based in the south. In addition, the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) has begun sending troops into the country to defend the Bamako regime.

Aside from issues of religion and territorial sovereignty, another factor may be playing into this evolving drama -- race.

Since Mali gained independence from France in 1960, the country’s affairs have largely been dominated by black African peoples, particularly the dominant Bambara group, while non-black segments of the population, notably the Tuaregs and Arabs of the north, have become marginalized.

A Tuareg-dominated group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), many of whom fought as mercenaries in Libya for Moammar Gaddafi, launched a rebellion last year seeking the formation of an independent homeland called Azawad – but they now find themselves in internal conflict with Islamist groups like Ansar Dine (also dominated by Tuaregs, but seeking to impose Shariah law in the region) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Regardless of the ideological differences between MNLA, Ansar Dine and AQIM, they are primarily led by non-black Tuaregs and Arabs, distinguished by their lighter skin complexions and sharper facial features, in contrast with their enemies -- black Africans who compose the bulk of the Malian government’s military.

But this is nothing new – for the Tuaregs in Mali have been engaged in periodic rebellions for the past 50 years.

“Tuaregs never had much interest in the independence movement in the 1950s and played no meaningful role in any of the developments and preparations that led to independence in 1960,” said Michael Shurkin, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. intelligence officer.

“The new ‘black’ government in Bamako oppressed Arabs and Tuaregs through a variety of policies that both hurt them economically and tended to inhibit their traditional ways of life, as well as erode their social status. [The government] made no attempt to integrate them or otherwise make them feel like they were Malian or part of the Malian polity.”

Rebellions started soon after independence.

“The repression of the 1964 rebellion was brutal and racial in form,” Shurkin said.

“Mali exacted retribution on Tuaregs as a class.”

In the conflict of the 1990s, Shurkin added, the Malian army (almost entirely black) sponsored black militias in the north that committed atrocities against ‘white’ populations.

“The ‘white’ militias responded by attacking the black civilians,” he said. “The violence was mutual and ugly. And those black militias still exist.”

But since the peace accords between Tuaregs and the Malian government were signed in the 1990s, the political differences between the two groups have narrowed.

“One cannot really accuse Bamako of oppressing the whites now,” Shurkin noted. 

“Bamako is indeed guilty of neglecting them or of not fulfilling political agreements or promises of economic development -- but not of oppression.”

In fact, he adds, Tuaregs and Arabs have responded to the opportunities created by elections and political decentralization to win political office at every level, and they are now well represented in the National Assembly. 

“Growing numbers of Tuareg moved south and settled in towns like Bamako, and large numbers of former Tuareg fighters were now integrated into the Malian army,” he noted.

Bruce Hall, assistant professor of history of African & African American Studies at Duke University, noted that since 1990s rebellion ended, northern Mali has actually received a greater share of development investment than other parts of the country.

“The human development indexes for this region are higher than in some parts of the south,” he said.

“Many Tuareg do not like being part of Mali, and Mali is a very poor country, but it is just not true that they are oppressed.”

Moreover, “race” is a very fluid and inexact term in the West African context. While some black Africans may describe Tuaregs and Arabs as “white,” Europeans likely would not use such a classification. Also, many Tuareg are themselves very dark-skinned after centuries of mixing with various black Africans.

“Race is always fluid and adaptable to different ideological needs and social contexts,” Hall noted.

“Northern Mali is no different than the United States in this respect. Racial mixing is only an issue if there is racial ideology at work. So like everywhere else, there is lots of ‘mixing,’ but what matters is not the biology, but the ways in which race is defined and how it is organized as an ideology. There is nothing ‘less racial’ about the situation in Northern Mali because of a history of ‘mixing’ than anywhere else. Race is not about the biology; it is about the ideas and practices that link biological traits to value which are claimed to be transmissible inter-generationally.”

Mali also cannot be conveniently separated by “north” and “south” either.

The races aren't clearly divided by geography, since the northern part of Mali has its black communities (like the Songhay and Peuls), and there exist black communities all along the Niger River.

“The Niger valley and the bigger towns are all integrated and diverse,” Shurkin said. 

”The two racial communities have long had a symbiotic economic relationship … but the Arabs and Tuaregs historically dominated [the blacks] in a roughly feudal relationship.”

French colonial rule, Shurkin noted, disrupted this relationship somewhat by loosening the feudal relationship and elevating the status of the blacks to some extent.

Even Islam, which virtually everyone in Mali practices, is linked to race.

“One's racial identity is an Islamic identity, since Arabs and Tuaregs trace their genealogy to Arab Muslims who allegedly were close to [the prophet] Mohammed or to famous Arab leaders in the conquest of North Africa,” Shurkin noted. 

“Islam serves for some to justify ‘white/Arab’ supremacy. Blacks, in fact, are in some ways defined as those who cannot trace their genealogy to Arabs.”

So, is race truly a dominant factors in the current Mali conflict?

Hall, who also authored a book called  ”A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960,” said that while race is not at the center of the conflict in terms of immediate causes, it cannot be disassociated from Tuareg nationalism itself, nor from the consequences of this and previous conflicts.

Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City, places race at the very center of the Northern Mali conflict.

“Pro-government [Malian] generals are using these divisions [between Tuaregs/Arabs and blacks] to motivate soldiers and escalate the war,” he said.

“But both sides are responsible for propagating reprisal attacks, torture and human rights abuses. The situation has become more complicated with the involvement of AQIM. Al-Qaeda is using the situation to boost its ranks to materialize a pure Islamist Malian state.”

Writing in the Guardian newspaper this past summer, correspondent Afua Hirsch noted the attitudes of some of the Tuareg refugees who had fled to neighboring Burkina Faso.

“Skin color is rarely discussed as a factor in Mali's current conflict, but its importance cannot be ignored,” she wrote.

“Some analysts I met in Burkina went so far as to say that the events in Mali … amount to a war on skin color, plain and simple.”

A middle-aged male Tuareg refugee named Ellagala Ag Amina told the Guardian correspondent that he once supported the Mali government and even served in the national army until the latest Tuareg rebellion, which sparked the crackdown by the military (which are comprised primarily by the dominant black Bambara ethnic group).

"I fought on the side of Mali. But when the MNLA rebellion started then it split us again, and the Mali army turned on us Tuaregs," Amina said.

“Tuaregs are targets for them because of our light skin. Now I feel ashamed that I fought with the army … now I would fight against them, for us, for our independent state.”

However, given that the Tuaregs once mistreated black Africans themselves and even enslaved them, the Tuaregs are not necessarily welcome in Burkina Faso. Indeed, the Tuaregs practice a skin color-based caste system where the darkest members of tribes (presumably descendants of black slaves) occupy the lowest strata of their society.

However, these rules are certainly not frozen as in the U.S. South -- while status among Tuaregs tends to correlate with skin color, it is not fixed to it or caused by it, especially given the degree to which race is culturally and socially constructed.

Thus, ‘Black’ Tuaregs and Arabs are still linguistically and culturally are part of the Tuareg/Arab worlds. 

“They are nonetheless at the bottom of the social hierarchy,” Shurkin said. 

“The Malian government has sometimes tried to elevate their status in a way that has antagonized Tuaregs.”

Last December, a former black member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Islamist groups vying for control in northern Mali – and one with many blacks in its ranks -- accused his Arab cohorts of racism, according to a report from the Council of Foreign Relations.

Hicham Bilal, a native of Niger who said he was the only black battalion commander in MUJAO, said the jihadist leaders were “white” who used blacks as “cannon fodder.” Bilal also said that the leadership of Ansar Dine is comprised of “white” people from Mauritania and Algeria.

[Interestingly, many blacks belong to MUJAO, largely originating from the Gao region in the north.]

While Shurkin would not classify the current conflict as a “race war” (pointing out the presence of blacks in various Islamist militants groups fighting Bamako; and the fact that most “whites” likely oppose the militants), he cautions that if the Malian army or black militias were to abuse the ‘white’ population, that could trigger the whites to mobilize against their black neighbors. 

“The fact that ECOWAS soldiers will be almost entirely black adds to the danger,” he noted. 

“There are already reports of Malian Army abuse of civilians. Not enough to set off the bomb, but enough to give warning that the bomb is ready to go off.”

Shurkin adds warily that it would not be unimaginable that Islamic and racial discourses could potentially coalesce so that the enemy is portrayed as the ‘black infidel,’ backed by the ‘Crusaders’ (i.e., French and Western troops).

However, Shurkin stresses that the French are not to blame for the chaos that is now engulfing Mali.

“The French did not invent or exacerbate the communal tensions one finds here,” he said.

“In a way, Mali did better under the French because the French were sort of a neutral party, and France’s priority was preventing disorder and insecurity of any kind, whether its origin was Islamist, racial or whatever. The Tuaregs were sorry to see the French go even though French policies were not entirely in their favor.”

“The warm welcome that the French forces have so far received suggests that, maybe, if the French are careful, they could once again mediate between the two sides.

Hall, however, has  a slightly different take on France’s colonial legacy in Mali.

“French rule encouraged ‘racialized’ identity formation by explicitly favoring those they saw as "white" over those they called "blacks," he said.

“Only blacks were subject to forced labor, recruitment to overseas military service, etc. For most of French rule, a system of slavery was supported by the colonial state for the benefit of Tuareg and Arab elites (and others). French officials also played a role in encouraging the development of Tuareg and Arab nationalism in Northern Mali during the period of decolonization.”

Hall warns that whatever the outcome of the French and ECOWAS intervention, there is a real danger of “racialized violence getting completely out of hand in the north itself,” either as the Malian army targets civilians for revenge, or, if northern Mali somehow remains in rebel hands, of racially targeted violence being used to “ethnically (racially) cleanse” areas of their black populations.

“There are also black militias formed on the 1990s model prepared to enter the fight with the Malian army, and these people could also become involved in racialized violence,” Hall added.

“In fact, in the absence of a strong international security presence, it seems very likely to me that racialized violence will occur on a much greater scale than it has so far.”