Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Then & now: D.C. is the "window through which the world looks into our house"

Washington D.C. is "the window through which the world looks into our house," wrote the Justice Department in the Brief of the United States as Amicus Curiae in Brown v. Board of Education (filed in 1952). The context was the Cold War, and the concern was that segregation in the nation's capital harmed the U.S. image around the world. One of the cases argued with Brown, Bolling v. Sharpe, concerned racial segregation in D.C. schools.

"Foreign officials and visitors naturally judge this country and our people by their experiences and observations in our nation's capital," the brief continued, "and the treatment of colored persons here is taken as a measure of our attitude toward minorities generally." The capital city "should be a true symbol of American freedom and democracy," at home and abroad, President Truman insisted. But a President's Committee on Civil Rights report had concluded that conditions in the city were "a graphic illustration of a failure of democracy."

The brief continues here. The fuller story is here and here.
The District of Columbia remains a segregated city, although the issue before the Court, government enforced racial segregation in public schools, was addressed in Brown, to great international fanfare. But the city is a showcase today of a different moment in this history of race and American democracy.

On that theme, since I am on the road this week, I hope you will excuse a reprise of an election post, Obama and the Image of America:

"Just wanted to share my joy across the Atlantic," wrote a friend from Paris this morning, as the world celebrated Barack Obama’s victory.

"It would be hard to overstate how fervently vast stretches of the globe wanted the election to turn out as it did to repudiate the Bush administration and its policies," writes Ethan Bronner for the New York Times. But this is not the only reason that Obama’s election is particularly important to the world.

For decades, American race relations have been a central feature of the way peoples of other nations regarded the United States. Discrimination against peoples of color led other nations to argue that the United States must correct its own imperfections before criticizing human rights violations by others. How could the United States argue that its system of government was a model for the world when within its own borders American citizens were segregated and disenfranchised?

In 1944 Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal argued that race discrimination was especially problematic in the United States because it was at odds with the principles of American democracy. During World War II, American racism "acquired tremendous international implication," he suggested. "America for its international prestige, power and future security needs to demonstrate to the world that American Negroes can be satisfactorily integrated into its democracy."

During the Cold War years, the international impact of American race relations escalated. Lynching, disenfranchisement and segregation harmed U.S. international prestige. This gave the Soviet Union an effective propaganda tool. As a columnist in Ceylon wrote in 1948: "the colour bar is the greatest propaganda gift any country could give the Kremlin in its persistent bid for the affections of the coloured races of the world."

"We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics," President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights wrote in 1947. American diplomats warned of the devastating impact of racism on U.S. prestige around the world, and American leaders came to understand that in order to lead the world the nation needed to live up to its principles. Spinning the story of race in America was not enough. Instead some level of social change was needed to turn around the impact of racism on the nation’s standing in the world. In this context, the U.S. Justice Department drew upon letter from Secretary of State Dean Acheson in its brief in Brown v. Board of Education (filed in 1952). Acheson noted that "the damage to our foreign relations attributable to [race discrimination] has become progressively greater....The view is pressed more and more vocally that the United States is hypocritical in claiming to be the champion of democracy while permitting practices of racial discrimination here in this country." (This argument is developed much more fully here, here, here and here.)

One lesson of the Cold War years is that living up to the nation’s principles, including protecting individual rights, strengthens the nation around the world. It also enables the United States to be a more forceful voice for human rights. But what Myrdal and others called at the time "the Negro problem" was the central problem for the American international image for many years. The status of African Americans was the Achilles heel as the nation became a world leader. For that reason, an African American President speaks directly to the generations of criticism that a nation that enslaved and then disenfranchised and brutalized its own citizens undermined its ability to be a moral leader of the world.
"I’m so proud of America!" wrote my friend from Paris. Discrimination endures, of course, in spite of the symbolism of Obama’s victory. But Obama now embodies the image of America. Because of this, a generations-long narrative has, for a moment at least, been put aside.