DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It’s not only in the United States where protests against racial injustice are part of the national conversation. A handful of America’s critics has taken note, using recent months’ demonstrations and graphic images of police violence to denounce the country at the United Nations’ gathering of world leaders this year.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani invoked the killing of George Floyd, the Black American man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee against his neck even as he repeatedly said he could not breathe. Floyd’s death, caught on video, set off nationwide protests in support of Black lives.
Rouhani said the scene was “reminiscent” of Iran’s own experience in its quest for freedom and liberation from domination, and that Iran instantly recognized “the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.”
Similarly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said U.S. sanctions were “an inhumane attempt to suffocate Syrians, just like George Floyd and others were cruelly suffocated in the United States.”
Cuba and Venezuela also took jabs at the U.S., making specific references to the protests during words delivered to the U.N. General Assembly.
While the tactic of criticizing America for its racial tensions and policies toward Black Americans is decades old, it comes as historians and experts warn that under President Donald Trump, U.S. moral authority and stature around the world has waned.
“When the United States falters, it ripples across the world. And the United States has long faltered in regard to its racial policy and upholding its promise of equality,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace whose research focuses on democracy and governance.
“In the past, when we’ve faltered, we’ve tried to do better,” she said. “I think what’s different now is that people fear that those ideals and values are possibly slipping.”
In his remarks to world leaders at the all-virtual U.N. meeting this week, Trump touted what he called his administration’s achievements in advancing religious liberty, opportunity for women and protecting unborn children.
“America will always be a leader in human rights,” Trump said. He made no reference to the protests roiling multiple cities as Americans prepare to vote in November’s presidential election.
In contrast, Barack Obama spoke directly about America’s “own racial and ethnic tensions” during his U.N. General Assembly remarks in 2014, saying he knew the world took notice of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of an unarmed Black 18-year-old by a police officer set off protests.
America’s critics will be quick to point out “that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals,” he said at the time. “But we welcome the scrutiny of the world – because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect.”
Though Trump made no mention of the struggle for racial equality in his speech, others did. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We aren’t going far enough to eliminate systemic injustice, whether it’s a question of racism against Black or Indigenous people, homophobia or sexism.” The small island chain of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines proclaimed “that Black Lives Matter” and said the case for reparatory justice remains strong.
As the GOP nominee in 2016, Trump seemed to acknowledge that when it came to civil liberties, the U.S “has a lot of problems” that impact America’s ability to promote democracy abroad. “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” Trump told the New York Times that July.
That argument echoes the one the Soviet Union levied against the U.S. during the Cold War, particularly in the civil rights era of the late 1950s and early 1960s under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Soviet media often portrayed the protests and sit-ins as evidence that racism was systemic of capitalism.
According to a State Department memo in 1963, written just months after Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, Soviet broadcasters portrayed U.S. policies toward Black citizens as “indicative of its policy toward colored peoples throughout the world.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.