A Superpower, Like It or Not
Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role
A global audience witnessed the lynching of George Floyd, on May 25, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s agonizing death by suffocation, his pleas for help, and his final words, “I can’t breathe”—recorded in a cell phone video and promptly shared on Facebook by a quick-witted young bystander—have been viewed billions of times and have unleashed a shock wave of outrage and revulsion that continues to reverberate around the world.
Murders of black people in the United States by law enforcement officers are not uncommon, and thanks to near-universal access to video-enabled smartphones and social media, they are increasingly well documented. In recent years, videos recording these killings and other forms of police violence against African Americans have emerged with horrifying regularity; their release and the outpouring of fury, grief, and calls for change that they inspire have become a macabre national ritual. Global condemnation of racist violence by U.S. law enforcement is not new, either. But the extraordinary scale and reach of the reaction to Floyd’s death—which has ignited weeks of mass protests in at least 60 countries and prompted the UN human rights chief to convene a special session this week focused on systemic racism in the United States—represents an order-of-magnitude shift.
In seeking to explain why the killing of Floyd has galvanized the world in this manner, many analysts point to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on minority communities. To be sure, the pandemic’s shocking toll on black lives and livelihoods—and the speed with which long-standing inequalities such as police brutality, voter suppression, and a discriminatory criminal justice system were laid bare and thrust into the spotlight—were contributing factors. But this analysis omits nearly two centuries of African American outreach and activism overseas. Although the long history of African American engagement on the international stage is often absent from conventional narratives about U.S. foreign policy, it has shaped contemporary global understandings of race in profound ways and has complicated—when it has not outright undermined—official U.S. government messaging about American values.
African American international activism began in the early nineteenth century, when black people who escaped the cruelties of slavery sought support from abolitionists overseas. In the mid-1840s, Frederick Douglass toured the United Kingdom for 19 months, forging relationships with English and Irish leaders who opposed human bondage in the United States and raising funds that would later help him launch an influential abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.
In the decades after the Civil War, when newly emancipated people faced economic deprivation and political terrorism, African American leaders again sought allies abroad. In the United Kingdom, pioneering black journalist Ida B. Wells found a receptive audience for her 1890s-era campaign against the omnipresent threat of lynching. British support for African Americans was especially helpful, Wells wrote, because white Americans viewed the United Kingdom as morally and culturally superior; American journalists and religious leaders had largely ignored lynching, but British criticism would be impossible for them to ignore. The British activists Wells mobilized helped generate the campaign’s early momentum—and embarrassed American leaders by demanding that they publicly denounce mob violence.
White Americans viewed Britain as morally superior, so British criticism of racism was impossible to ignore.
As the European empires consolidated in the early twentieth century, African Americans joined their African and Caribbean counterparts at a series of Pan-African Congresses with the goal of reforming colonial institutions that were founded on racial domination and developing strategies to resist antiblack racism. Although these efforts suffered a blow in 1919, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and other Western leaders rejected Japan’s proposal to insert a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter, the struggle against racism was coming into sharper focus as a broad-based, global movement.
The United Nations formed at last in 1945, and the U.S. government gave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Council of Negro Women ceremonial roles as observers at the founding conference, in the hope of encouraging domestic support for the new institution. Washington was displeased, however, when, in 1947, the NAACP submitted a 96-page petition to the UN Commission on Human Rights, asking it to investigate human rights violations against African Americans in the United States. Edited by W. E. B. Du Bois and titled “An Appeal to the World,” the document began with a pointed denunciation of American hypocrisy. “A nation which boldly declared ‘that all men are created equal,’ proceeded to build its economy on chattel slavery,” Du Bois wrote. India and the Soviet Union displayed interest in the petition, and more insightful U.S. officials realized that critics and enemies could make political capital of a race problem that could no longer be sequestered.
During the early Cold War period, in the decade and a half following the NAACP’s landmark 1947 appeal to global public opinion, numerous governments and international institutions expressed their strong disapproval of institutional racism in the United States and their deep concern about the antiblack violence that accompanied early integration efforts. Global criticism of institutional racism against African Americans subsided after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. American officials of the Cold War era reviewed common talking points on race with concerned foreign interlocutors—that racism was rapidly being eradicated from American life, that it persisted mostly in regional backwaters, and that it was in fact on the brink of disappearing. U.S. officials continue to repeat these platitudes, despite the fact that racism has never gone away. And whether the United States would have pursued racial justice without the threat of humiliation on the international stage and the pressure exerted by powerful global rivals remains an open question.
Global reactions to the Floyd murder were not simply responses to a single event. The world already knew about antiblack racism in the United States. Voter suppression, disproportionately affecting people of color, has no parallel in other democracies. The particulars of Floyd’s murder, taking place against the backdrop of the pandemic, may well have been the dam-break moment for the global protest movement. But they are only part of the story. International solidarity with the African American civil rights struggle comes not from some kind of projection or spontaneous sentiment; it was seeded by centuries of black activism abroad and foreign concern about human rights violations in the United States.
The status of African Americans cannot be unlinked from the United States’ standing in the world. And unfortunately, Du Bois’s 1947 warning that a “great nation, which today ought to be in the forefront of the march toward peace and democracy, finds itself continuously making common cause with race hate,” remains just as fresh and urgent today.
The international response to Floyd’s murder has been informed by a deep understanding of and concern about the conditions endured by black people living in the United States—information that African American intellectuals have been disseminating overseas for generations. If, as millions of protesters worldwide now so fervently hope, intensifying pressure from the international community in the wake of Floyd’s death helps to prompt a new reckoning with racism in the United States and a commitment to lasting change, the efforts of these activists may finally begin to get the recognition they deserve.
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