Black Lives Matter: Testing American Exceptionalism

Black Lives Matter: Testing American Exceptionalism
NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism.

The continued protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans are testing both the USA and the world. They highlight the structural racism in American society and the extent of the nation’s commitment to equality of rights and justice for all.  

Globally, the violence and resulting scandals threaten America’s perceived position as a world leader in human rights. The Black Lives Matter movement‘s success is critical not only for achieving a more perfect union at home but also for advancing human freedom and dignity worldwide.

The United States has made the worldwide promotion of human rights an explicit objective of its foreign policy since World War II. American diplomats helped to craft several human rights treaties, including the International Convention on Social and Political Rights leading to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke on the United States’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. The State Department issues annual human rights reports in countries around the world, as well as assessments on the state of international freedom of religion and progress against trafficking.

In their efforts to combat tyranny and oppression, human rights and democracy activists abroad count on American support. But America’s human rights leadership has been hampered by two truths for a long time: persistent racial injustice in the United States itself and an uneven commitment to the very global standards it helped create.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union pointed to the civil rights protests against the laws of Jim Crow as evidence of American hypocrisy. Playing on racial tensions within the United States predates the Cold War. In 1932, Dmitri Moor, the Soviet Union’s highly famous propaganda poster artist, made a poster that wailed, “Freedom to all the prisoners of Scottsboro!” It was a reference to the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers. They were falsely accused and arrested for raping two white women in Alabama, and then wrongly convicted by all-white Southern juries. 

Jim Crow South and the young Soviet state milked it for all the propagandistic value it could. In 1930, the Comintern had catapulted the aims of its covert mission  and agreed to work on establishing a separate black state in the South, which would, in turn, provide it with a beachhead for spreading the revolution to all parts of North America.

More recently, the US government has deflected criticism of its human rights abuses. Through not ratifying major multilateral humanitarian treaties, including those that were initially welcomed, the United States has compounded international suspicion. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the above-mentioned Disabled Convention. 

This trend of US exceptionalism—or “exemptionalism”—reflects a longstanding American ambivalence toward international law, according to which the United States seeks to be the architect but not the subject of international rules. 

The root of this Janus-like disposition is the  narrow, misguided view strongest among US conservatives that international human rights treaties and external scrutiny violate US independence and sovereignty under the Constitution.

In the early 1950s, when the Senate almost passed the infamous Bricker Amendment, the brainchild of Sen. John Bricker, Republican of Ohio. The proposed constitutional amendment sought to limit the president’s treaty-making power. The core of that effort was racial politics.

The amendment’s most ardent champions worried that UN human rights treaties would empower American civil rights activists to challenge the nation’s segregationist policies. 

To forestall this possibility, Bricker’s amendment would have raised extraordinary hurdles for any accession by the United States to an international Treaty which required not only a supermajority in the Senate but also the approval of all (then) 48 US States. 

The amendment also, before any new treaty agreements could take domestic effect, would have required separate congressional enforcement legislation. 

The Black Lives Matter movement aims not just to achieve a more perfect Union, but to promote human rights, dignity, and freedom throughout the world, which is precisely why the success of the Black Lives Matter movement is crucial.

“This kind of a global examination has now become very serious, as foreign attention focuses on the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, and so many Black Americans in police hands” said Michelle Bachelet, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bachelet also called for the United States to take “serious action”  to address the latest long-lasting killing of African Americans by US police officers.

A week later, 66 United Nation human right monitors released a pair of extraordinary declarations decrying the basic racial inequality and discrimination characterizing black peoples’ lives in the United States and denouncing the “legacy of racial terror [that] is apparent to modern [American] policing.”

Photo ops on St. John’s Church following the dispersal of protesters from Lafayette Square by tear gas and rubber bullets have led to international condemnation. 

Writing in the Washington Post, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Representative for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, denounced “possible international violations” by US police which include violent acts that contravened established “proportionality and necessity” principles.

From Berlin to Brisbane, protesters have demonstrated in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and expressed outrage at the indifference of the Trump Administration to racial discrimination and racial violence by police. American leadership in the area of human rights is now in disarray.

That is a disaster for the cause of human rights, at a time when freedom and democracy are already on their heels globally and when authoritarian powers, especially China and Russia, are encouraged by this disaster for human rights. The US can no longer preach from the pulpit to regain moral authority on human rights.

Influence abroad may recover  in the form of a painful but long overdue accounting of—and reparation for—lasting racial injustices, over 150 years after the official end of slavery in American society.

It also requires the US to shed its sovereign defensive status and to open up its imperfect human rights record to external scrutiny. Naturally, none of this will happen so long as the racist Donald Trump remains in the White House. His successor will be in charge of a respectable America again.

Featured Image is Black Lives Matter Black Friday