The Legacy of American Racism at Home and Abroad
June 22, 2020
This commentary was originally published in Foreign Policy on June 19, 2020.
It used to be that Americans had to wait decades to learn how U.S. national security professionals viewed racism within the United States. Only declassified reports and personal memoirs revealed how senior officials and diplomats condemned segregation, inequality, and racial injustice in their own country. Many of them saw the evils of racism as an affront to U.S. values and an impediment to the country’s foreign-policy goals, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. They delivered their points directly or indirectly—in situation rooms, policy debates, and briefings. These critiques, however, were rarely offered publicly or directly to Americans. It was inappropriate, many believed, for foreign-policy specialists to discuss domestic issues. This artificial divide between the professional and personal sidelined some of our sharpest foreign-policy minds from addressing systematic racism in America.
The national uproar over the killing of George Floyd may finally tear down the wall between the personal and professional. Over the past two weeks, numerous U.S. diplomats of different races have said exactly what they think. The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe recalled that “as an African American . . . I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own,” while the chief of mission in Eritrea reaffirmed that “George Floyd and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin and too many other young black men should be alive today.”
If the United States is going to heal its society and remain a source of inspiration abroad, it has to publicly and openly embrace self-criticism. Foreign-policy practitioners have to do what was once rare: use their platforms to speak to the American people and audiences abroad about racism and change the way the foreign-policy community operates.
Domestic racism has long undermined U.S. foreign policy. With the civil rights movement coinciding with the dawn of independence in sub-Saharan Africa, national security officials swiftly labeled segregation and racism as threats to U.S. foreign policy toward the region. As the public was to learn years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, noted that the situation in Little Rock, Arkansas, was “ruining our foreign policy. The effect of this in Asia and Africa will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians.” Officials in John F. Kennedy’s administration were even more forthright: Kennedy adviser (and, later, a senator from Pennsylvania) Harris Wofford advised that racial justice at home would “do more good in promoting good relations with Africa than anything else we can do.” It was infrequent when these sentiments were shared publicly, though Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs (and former governor of Michigan), G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, denounced racism as a “blight on America” in a speech at the University of Oklahoma.
This viewpoint reverberated through subsequent administrations. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s U.S. Information Agency director Carl Rowan shared in a memo that although African reactions to the Civil Rights Act were highly favorable, “some evidence exists of an increasing impatience with what is regarded as the lagging eradication of racial discrimination in the United States.” In a 1973 memo, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs David Newsom argued that “our credibility on moral questions of racial equality is challenged.” Perhaps it is no wonder that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later trashed the Africa bureau staff in a memoir for “casting themselves as the defenders of American idealism.”
While the historical record is replete with foreign-policy professionals talking about race and racism in the United States within the corridors of power, few of those discussions took place in the public square. Apart from a few speeches at universities and with civil rights leaders and interest groups, U.S. diplomats and other officials shirked from sharing their personal views in real time and in public settings.
Such silence and disengagement is a luxury not afforded to all. The two authors of this piece have long backgrounds in foreign policy—in international nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, the intelligence community, and the National Security Council. But as a white man and an African American man, our experiences grappling with the impact of racism and our role in combatting it couldn’t be more different.