Any Americans who believe that this country’s race problem stops at the water’s edge should disabuse themselves of the notion.
Our race problem is also an international problem in that dictators and authoritarian regimes use it as a way to point out American hypocrisy on human rights, as a means of deflecting from their horrible treatment of their own people and as a way to buck American chastisement.
Until America sufficiently deals with its own race problem, it will remain somewhat handicapped on the world stage.
On Wednesday, at a news conference after his meeting with President Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed aside criticism of how his government was treating a pro-democracy group in his country by comparing that group to Black Lives Matter:
“America just recently had very severe events, well-known events, after the killing of an African American. An entire movement developed, known as Black Lives Matter. I’m not going to comment on that, but here’s what I do want to say: What we saw was disorder, destruction, violations of the law, etc.”
“We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don’t want that to happen on our territory. We’re doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen.”
Russia has a long history of invoking our domestic race problem. As Julia Ioffe pointed out in The Atlantic in 2017, Russia and the Soviet Union have an 80-plus-year history of involvement and exploitation of America’s race problem. In fact, as Ioffe put it, “Whenever the Soviet Union was criticized for its human rights abuses, the rebuttal became, ‘And you lynch Negroes.’”
The Russian efforts have gone beyond embarrassing the United States to using race as a way to interfere in our presidential election in 2016. As The New York Times reported in 2018, the Russians’ “efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets.”
The article noted that the tactics echoed “Soviet propaganda efforts from decades ago that often highlighted racism and racial conflict in the United States.”
Russia is not the only country, and Putin is not the only leader, to deflect to America’s treatment of Black people. In 1960, Fidel Castro stormed into Harlem to highlight the plight of Black people in America and to embarrass the American government. He checked into the Hotel Theresa and one of his first guests was Malcolm X.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met Castro there. As Smithsonian Magazine wrote last year, quoting from Khrushchev’s memoirs, “he understood that ‘by going to a Negro hotel in a Negro district, we would be making a double demonstration against the discriminatory policies of the United States of America toward Negroes, as well as toward Cuba.’”
Just this March, the Chinese government released a blistering report that criticized the United States for several things, among them: racism.
“To defeat the epidemic requires mutual help, solidarity and cooperation among all countries. However, the United States, which has always considered itself an exception and superior, saw its own epidemic situation go out of control, accompanied by political disorder, interethnic conflicts, and social division.”
The report continued, “Vulnerable groups became the biggest victims of the government’s reckless response to the epidemic.”
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un issued a paper in early 2018 that said “racial discrimination and misanthropy are serious maladies inherent to the social system of the U.S., and they have been aggravated since Trump took office.” It continued by saying “the racial violence that took place in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 is a typical example of the acme of the current administration’s policy of racism.”
The problem is that no matter how bad these dictators act on the world stage — and they are plenty bad — they are not completely wrong in their condemnation of American racism. The problem is that they are not sincerely interested parties, but rather are opportunistically seeking to exploit shortcoming and division.
That said, America needs to face up to the fact that it can’t sweep around someone else’s front door until it sweeps around its own.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration in New York commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
It was scathing and helped cement Douglass as one of America’s greatest orators.
In it, Douglas blasted America’s “boasted liberty” as “an unholy license.” Douglass said:
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Slavery is no more, but American hypocrisy is still with us. American racial oppression is still with us. America’s poor treatment of its Black citizens is still with us. Until we fix that, or even address it, the world’s dictators will continue to see us and mock our hypocrisy as the biblical Jesus mocked the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs in the Book of Matthew:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”