We have seen striking coverage over the last two weeks of the global reaction to George Floyd’s murder, the protest movement, and police violence. Yet again, people in other countries question whether the U.S. should offer its constitutional system as a model for the world. This time, the focus is not only on the grotesque brutality of Floyd’s killing. As reporters have been shot at with “nonlethal” weapons by police, foreign governments have protested that freedom of the press needs to be protected in the United States.
The impact through history of U.S. racism on world opinion, and the way the U.S. government saw civil rights law reform as a corrective, has been widely recognized. Recent provide an occasion to emphasize a couple of points.
In a Foreign Affairs essay, George Floyd Moves the World: The Legacy of Racial Protest in America and the Imperative of Reform, I tell the story of past international protest in support of U.S. civil rights, but stress that U.S. efforts to address the impact on the U.S. image were insufficient. They were better at temporary fixes that aided U.S. diplomacy than rooting out the structural racism that fuel both protest and foreign criticism.
An essay last week, The Damage Trump Has Done This Week Extends Far Beyond America’s Borders, in the New York Times, responds more specifically to Trump’s argument that Minnesota protests made the state “a laughingstock all over the world,” and his pledge to bypass governors who tolerated protest, and to use the military to “dominate” American streets.
During the 1950s and ’60s, racism’s damage to America’s role in the world was highlighted in the president’s daily national security briefings. Mr. Trump, who ignores his own briefings, is not likely to understand the ways that police violence and racial injustice hamper American influence — and the way his own militarism could empower foreign brutality.
By fanning the flames of intolerance, it is the president, not the governors, who undermines his country’s standing in the world.
There are (at least) two takeaways for today's reform efforts. First, international engagement and pressure is a resource that the Black Lives Matter movement can draw upon, as did the earlier civil rights movement. Second, surface fixes intending only to shore up the U.S. image will fail.
Derrick Bell, of course, anticipated the connections between civil rights and foreign affairs before historians got to it. I turn to his Faces at the Bottom of the Well in Foreign Affairs:
The racism crisis in the United States today is not one slip among others that makes the nation look weak in the eyes of the world. Racism is a central and enduring American characteristic, as the critical race theorist Derrick Bell insisted long ago. Calling it out, as have millions of Americans in the past week, does not undermine the nation by revealing its well-known failings to the rest of the world. The world has known of these failings for centuries. Instead, the protests are a first step toward redress. As other nations are challenged about their own legacies of injustice, a serious U.S. reform effort could be an example of strength worth emulating.