Foreign Lives Matter
American racism at home and abroad only highlights the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy. And the rest of the world isn't buying America's message anymore.
Race is back in the news in the United States, and sadly not just for commemorative events, such as the 50th anniversary of the Selma March. If people thought they had seen the worst after the incidents in Ferguson and New York City, April brought more horrifying examples of the institutionalized racism and violence that permeates the United States. The shooting of yet another unarmed black man in South Carolina beggars belief, and is a stark reminder of just how entrenched racism is in U.S. society and its institutions. And in late April, racism fueled the burning of the city of Baltimore, compelling U.S. President Barack Obama to call it a “slow-rolling crisis.”
But many around the world understand it to be more than that. Why? A recent report states that in March 2014 alone, police encounters in the United States resulted in 111 killings, twice as many as were killed by British police in the entire 20th century. U.S. police disproportionately and excessively target minorities at traffic stops, and U.S. courts disproportionately and excessively convict minorities of crimes. “African American and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population,” according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — and the percentages of minorities in American prisons appear to be growing.
Until recently, many people around the world had believed that the United States had put its troubled history with race behind it. But how thin that veneer is became evident in August 2014, after the police shooting of a black teenager in the city of Ferguson, Missouri. The city’s chief of police resigned following a string of outrages, including the discovery of racist emails circulated within his police department that suggested Barack Obama “would not be president for very long because what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
This concerns more than just Americans. After all, what does it mean for the rest of the world when its most powerful nation struggles mightily with racism in its midst? For one, it contextualizes the often-heralded notion of American “exceptionalism.” At its core, that idea is an incredibly arrogant notion. It hints of racism and a barely concealed contempt of others, especially the non-Western world. But it is a doctrine that is still ruthlessly enforced in the carnival that is American politics. When Obama tried for a dose of realism on this subject in 2009 — saying “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”– heavy criticism eventually compelled him to backtrack. The consensus enforcers later got him to say “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
At a time when the United States has become the de-facto policeman of the world and a self-appointed arbitrator of peace, Asians have watched with concern — especially with elections looming in 2016 — at how the Republican Party has even swung further to the right. The GOP has stopped even pretending to concern itself with the welfare of non-white Americans. Many of its most prominent members display a very shallow understanding of the world and thus a lack of appreciation of the complex histories of other nations, yet seem itching to intervene on the slightest pretext. Worse, they would have the United States do so based on their prejudices and ideological fixations — some of which are likely framed by their fear of those unlike themselves.
It has not gone unnoticed in Asia (or for that matter among black, Hispanic, or Asian Americans) that the current Republican Party has earned itself the moniker “White Man’s Party.” Not that Democrats are all that much better. Those on the left may be willing to pay lip service to minority rights, but many in the Democratic leadership are just as much a part of the ruling white establishment. For them, race serves as a convenient political whip to flog the Republicans with but little else. “I mean you’ve got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guy,” are the words Vice President Joe Biden reportedly used in 2007 to describe the man who would later carry him to the White House. Former President Bill Clinton, is also reported to have dismissed Obama by saying, “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee” (or “carrying our bags,” depending on the source) while speaking to the late Democratic powerhouse Ted Kennedy.
This has Asians, Arabs, South Americans, and Africans around the world concerned, though sadly few are willing to say so publicly — or given the global platform to do so. Those few who do speak out, like former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who spoke of the “racism [that] is very characteristic of imperialism and capitalism,” are quickly maligned. They see the connective tissue to the World War I-era U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke about protecting “white civilization and its domination of the planet.” This may seem like ancient history to Americans, but what followed was a long tradition of foreign misadventures and reprehensible ethics that still resonate with critics of the United States.
Take, for instance, the role that racist — or at least supremacist — attitudes played in decisions such as the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. While the United States has often called for other nations to either acknowledge or apologize for their crimes in previous wars, it has never apologized to the Vietnamese for its indiscriminate use of napalm.
The same can be said about Washington’s unabashed business relations with the white apartheid regime in South Africa — something that many in that region still remember. And the long and shameful U.S. history of support for military elites of European descent in Latin America against indigenous populations is something that explains the lingering suspicion of many in the region toward the White House — and why people like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are still viewed as heroes.
In Asia, many have not forgotten that the United States remains the only nation to ever deploy a nuclear weapon (twice), and did so on an Asian nation towards which many in the American leadership had deeply racist attitudes. They recall that Franklin D. Roosevelt interned roughly 90 percent of the continental Japanese-American population in prison camps during the war. His successor, Harry Truman, the man who ultimately pushed the nuclear button that brought World War II to an end, wrote to his wife: “I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman.”
All of which makes it not unbelievable to think that an irrational fear of Islam — and denigration of Muslims — may also be the primary factor behind the fanatical determination of many in Washington to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Fear and distrust of others can be found lurking in almost every corridor of power that influences U.S. foreign policy.
The rest of the world sees this. It smells the hypocrisy in Washington when leaders resort to the old saw that America “is a nation of immigrants” while kicking unaccompanied children out of the country en masse.
While Wall Street stocks won’t take a hit from the riots in Baltimore, the image of the United States as a free, fair, and prosperous land for all certainly does. Some 150 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, the United States has not overcome its reprehensible domestic legacy of racism. And it is time that politicians, academics, and business leaders across the world pause before they readily embrace American ideals and interests.
To be sure, America is not the only country where racist attitudes influence politics. There are many Asian, African, and European leaders who have equally despicable views about race. Thankfully, they have no power to turn these views into actions on the international stage. They cannot utter statements such as “all options are on the table” or consider bombing innocents in Iran. When it comes to racism in geopolitics, America stands alone for two reasons: First, its own relentlessly advertised promise and potential. Second, the sheer scale of its economic and military muscle.
So what are the implications for U.S. influence in Asia? The United States is currently in the middle of its “pivot” to Asia — militarily, with as much as 60 percent of U.S. naval assets to be deployed to the Pacific; and economically, with far-reaching trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), whose proposed members make up roughly 40 percent of world GDP. Yet these overtures are unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the world’s largest continent if Asian political leaders and their increasingly informed electorates wake-up to America’s race-based biases.
In Asia, political leaders should remain wary of allowing their own race-based or historical grievances to become the basis for their foreign policy. The unresolved tensions between China and Japan are a case in point. Given China’s growing influence in the region it must resist the temptation of fueling racist attitudes towards Japan that might later come to dictate its actions. Instead it should stick to its admirable commitment to rejecting the race-based oppression that drove much of European colonization of the world, especially Africa and Asia.
American political leaders should not assume that the silence of their Asian counterparts means that they do not recognize this tendency, have no fear of this threat, or that they do not hold deeply felt resentment about the underlying racism that appears to frame U.S. attitudes towards Asia and other developing regions. For their part, Asian leaders need to speak out and stop being silent on the issue. They will earn the right to be true allies of the United States by being honest on this sensitive topic and making clear to Americans that latent racism cannot be allowed to influence Washington’s foreign policy. And the average American should know, too, that what’s happening in Baltimore or Ferguson reverberates thousands of miles away.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images