Thousands of people around the world are sending a dual message to Americans as they protest the death of George Floyd, the latest casualty of the systemic violence against Black residents of the U.S. Their message: We see your pain ― and we see your country for what it really is.
To those outside America’s borders, the nation’s state-sanctioned racism stands in stark contrast to its proudly proclaimed ideals of liberty and equality in the more than 100 years that the U.S. has been a global power.
Black Americans and members of other marginalized communities in the U.S. often share their stories abroad in search of solidarity, recognizing that international embarrassment could help drive reform at home. Representatives of the U.S. government have offered foreigners a different narrative of progress towards fulfilling America’s promise.
Since Floyd died after a white police officer pinned him down by the neck — sparking international protest and outcry — it’s clear that deep skepticism persists worldwide about America’s commitment to racial justice and that people connected to the U.S., officials or others, will be asked to answer for it for years to come.
“It’s such a burden to have to carry that additional weight into the world, and I think that may be true for everyone, but particularly for the people who are being oppressed or mistreated at home,” said Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a former ambassador who served in the State Department for more than 30 years before resigning in 2017. “Not only do we have to deal with our own sorrow, but we have to answer for our European Americans. I’ve got to try to explain white racism, white supremacy. I’ve got that extra burden of trying to explain that, not just dealing with my own pain and sense of heartbreak.”
Abercrombie-Winstanley added: “Blacks have been in the foreign service being representatives of the United States since the late 1890s, when we were sent out as envoys, so we have struggled with the contradiction of representing the nation and being disdained by the nation at the same time, and even so, we have served well.”
Before President Donald Trump threatened to violently suppress demonstrations in memory of Floyd, before the spread of recording equipment let the world witness how U.S. police brutalize non-white bodies and before “I can’t breathe” became a global rallying cry challenging American cruelty and injustice, America tried to explain its racism to the world. It largely failed.
How The Story Got Told
European settlers made racist treatment of people of African descent integral to the entity that became America 400 years ago, when they brought enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia. Two centuries later, much of the economy of the independent U.S. still relied on slavery as nations in Europe began banning the inhumane practice (while preserving other ways to oppress millions of people of color).
Americans who escaped slavery began telling the country’s peers about their mistreatment in visits abroad and in their writings. Frederick Douglass saw his “Narrative” translated into French and Dutch and spent two years speaking to audiences across Ireland and Britain. There, “the chattel becomes a man,” he reflected. Other Black Americans later echoed that sense of feeling fully acknowledged as human beings when they were away from American racism, even in other societies designed to benefit white people.
The Civil War and subsequent emancipation brought the U.S. in line with most European countries in barring the treatment of people as property. But it didn’t end white elites’ interest in sustaining their own power or widespread prejudice ― and Reconstruction, the crucial period of efforts to allow Black Americans to truly exercise their rights, was brief.
A trio of developments in the next few years ensured racism remained central to America’s identity and how it was perceived abroad. White politicians instituted Jim Crow laws to ensure that millions of Black people across the South were denied full citizenship. The U.S. became more ambitious as its wealth and power grew, with the result that it announced itself as a major international player by successfully waging a war against Spain in 1898.
W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist and writer, saw a moment for Black Americans to redouble efforts to look beyond the U.S. in fighting for justice.
“It’s the era of post-slavery but really aggressive oppression so Du Bois is kind of Otto von Bismarck, writing to connect people,” said Stephen Casmier, an associate professor of English at Saint Louis University, referring to the German leader who drove the unification of German communities into one country. In his book “The Souls of Black Folk,” published in 1903, Du Bois argued “people of African descent all over the world were somehow connected together and involved in the same kind of struggle,” Casmier said.
Tying Black Americans’ plight to the pain of European colonialism in Africa showed that as America’s prominence grew, so would the world’s knowledge of its domestic failings ― and that as powerful Americans united with leaders of other countries to shape global affairs with little regard for most people of color, other international bonds would flourish, too. Du Bois co-organized his first Pan-African Congress to try to shape the settlement after World War I. In the years that followed, some Black Americans who left for Europe, such as Josephine Baker, became cultural icons.
Global awareness about how discrimination was endemic in the U.S. couldn’t force America to change its ways. But it helped make it harder to argue against reform.
By the middle of the 20th century, American officials often tried to describe their government as fundamentally opposed to racism and committed to tackling it for two major reasons, scholars said. Washington wanted to promote its defeat of the Nazis and their violent prejudice, and it was increasingly afraid of losing the global battle for public opinion to the Soviet Union.
“The United States is participating in this global war against racism. Then you say, ‘Wait a minute, the United States is doing this with a segregated army,’” said Moshik Temkin, a historian at Harvard University. “That becomes a problem from a PR perspective. How are you actually selling the United States as a world democracy? It then becomes a severe geopolitical problem.”
Moscow highlighted American racism and atrocities such as the Birmingham church bombing in propaganda materials, particularly among the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa, whom both the Russians and the Americans wanted on their side in the Cold War and who were already angry with Europeans’ treatment of non-whites. U.S. officials promoted examples of progress — such as the Brown v. Board of Education ruling ending segregation in schools — and started such programs as a jazz diplomacy campaign featuring Black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Temkin said.
Many Black Americans helped resist Soviet efforts to “shape truth” internationally, said Abercrombie-Winstanley, the former ambassador. She cited Carl Rowan, who ran the United States Information Agency under President Lyndon B. Johnson and was the highest-ranking Black person in government. Rowan publicized events such as the 1963 March on Washington, noting Johnson’s support for it and calling it, in a rebuke to America’s authoritarian rivals, “a moving exercise of one of the most cherished rights in a free society: the right of peaceful protest.”
But for others, it was crucial to challenge the narrative of a country whose reality they knew fell short of its sales pitch. Malcolm X traveled the world condemning American perfidy ― a headache for U.S. representatives abroad who reported back on him and confronted him after he spoke at the Kenyan parliament, Temkin’s research shows.
“The story is not African Americans against each other ― it’s more about what the American state was doing,” Temkin said.
For U.S. leaders, the goal of projecting a less racist image influenced key decisions about how to respond to demands from the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he added.
American officials also cited evidence of greater equality at home to counter global criticism of American actions abroad, such as the Vietnam War and supporting right-wing coups. “It acts as a cover for the other things that we do, whether it is waging perpetual war or destroying entire civilizations in the Third World,” Casmier said.
Since the end of the Cold War and the development of an increasingly connected world dominated by American media and business, foreign familiarity with U.S. racial politics has likely only grown. Casmier, who is Black, thinks that could be a result of Black Americans’ experiencing what Du Bois called “double consciousness”: the sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”
“Maybe that sense of double consciousness also invades our performances, and that’s why the images that you often see coming out of American protests seem so perfectly forged,” Casmier said. “They get inside of you in a certain kind of way.”
That can boost solidarity. But foreign racists are paying attention, too. In countries such as France, where Casmier studied and regularly travels, more white communities are developing American-style obsessions, such as the fear that people of color are exploiting national welfare systems, he said ― creating kindling for future conflict.
Being The Face Of A Troubled System
For representatives of the U.S. abroad, conversations about America’s racism are unavoidable, morally fraught and rarely easy.
Black diplomats “have had to learn early on how to navigate the spaces of being truthful about what’s happening in the United States ― of expressing our dismay, our disgust, our heartbreak ― at the same time as expressing our hope for the future and our belief in what this country says it stands for,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.
Past experience offers something of a playbook.
In times such as this, in the aftermath of the Floyd killing, “we have to balance that hope with reality. … We have to redouble our efforts,” she said. And that work isn’t just for the disproportionately low number of people of color in the foreign service, she added: “We have to demand it of our European Americans. This problem isn’t an African American problem. This is a European American problem, and we are asking them to look to themselves: How are you dealing with your part of our greater community?”
Abercrombie-Winstanley added: “This burden is a European American burden, to get rid of this poison.”
Tom Perriello, who served as a special envoy to the African Great Lakes region under President Barack Obama and has previously worked in conflict zones worldwide, regularly heard concerns abroad about race in the U.S., he told HuffPost.
“Sometimes that was done in a ‘gotcha’ way by countries that we had been pushing on their human rights records. Sometimes it was from allies and friends asking what the hell was going on,” Perriello said.
Perriello recommended breaking with the historic approach of “a largely white establishment foreign service that said the American project was perfect with one sin.” Instead, Americans should acknowledge that they have problems to reckon with and even show they have learned from the experiences of other nations in confronting painful truths about their own. He pointed to recent efforts to take down Confederate memorials in his home state of Virginia as an example.
Former Ambassador Dana Shell Smith was in her native California during the 1992 uprising that followed a jury’s decision to acquit white police officers for beating Rodney King, a Black man. She recalled foreigners frequently bringing up the unrest early in her career.
“White people shouldn’t be trying to speak to the Black perspective, but what a white diplomat can do is find voices who can and make sure to elevate and amplify those voices,” Smith said. She attempted to do just that while working in public diplomacy throughout the Middle East by organizing events featuring Americans of color.
It also helps for international audiences to hear from figures outside official diplomatic roles such as visiting lawmakers, said Perriello, a former congressman himself and now the executive director of Open Society-U.S. He cited trips abroad by Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
And moments of deep symbolism beyond American representatives’ control can be invaluable in proving that faith in the U.S. is worthwhile. Obama’s 2008 election “was like the greatest advertisement for what I always believed our country stands for,” Smith said.
The conduct of Obama’s successor has made it even more difficult to make America’s case in what was already a losing battle for global public opinion. Many diplomats have resigned under Trump, leaving the State Department over his public humiliation of veteran public servants, his racist rhetoric or the agency’s complicity in his extreme policies.
Those who remain now have to explain both a centuries-old American system of racism and an unprecedented authoritarian turn from a president facing a national crisis.
“This has been a challenge for many of the people I know in the foreign service from the beginning of this administration, but it is just crystallized to an enormous extent this past week,” said Laura Kennedy, a former ambassador.
Kennedy recalled helping organize an American cultural exhibit in the old Soviet Union. In keeping with the regime’s goals, attendees would often ask questions designed to trip up the diplomats and the speakers they invited: Wasn’t the U.S. based on the genocide of Native Americans, and how could it justify how it treated Black citizens?
“We were encouraged to give our own answers and draw on our experience,” she said. “At least you could talk about the fact that we have a free press, and we debate these issues.”
Today, Kennedy said, “we have our own president who is damning the free press in America.”