Protests in Perspective: The Protests Go Global, with Mary L. Dudziak & Brenda Gayle Plummer
September 14, 2020
To follow the speakers' PowerPoint presentations, please watch the full video on YouTube.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and greetings in whatever time zone you may be. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Welcome to our discussion today, "The Protests Go Global." This is the first in a series of programs sponsored by Carnegie Council and the Open Society University Network on the 2020 protests, and we are delighted you are spending this time with us.
Our goal, as the series title suggests, is to consider the 2020 protests in perspective. There is a lot of noise out there about what's happening and what it means, and our contribution is to organize ordered reflection led by scholars to better understand the moment that we're in.
Today's discussion will take up the fact that what started in the streets of Minneapolis with the killing of George Floyd quickly ignited protests in hundreds of cities around the world. As our panelist Mary Dudziak put it in the title of her recent article, "George Floyd Moves the World," and as Brenda Gayle Plummer put it in the title of her article, "Civil Rights Has Always Been a Global Movement." So today we will consider the protests from a global perspective. In subsequent discussions we will consider them in historical perspectives as well as philosophical perspectives. We will also look at the question of what might happen when the protests end. Why are some protests successful while others fade away?
Before I turn things over to our moderator, Leslie Vinjamuri, just a word about this joint venture between Carnegie Council and the Open Society University Network. Carnegie Council is a 106-year-old institution founded by Andrew Carnegie to be an ongoing advocate for international cooperation based on shared values and shared interests. The Open Society University Network is a brand-new institution, not yet one-year-old, founded by George Soros, to "foster critical thinking and fact-based research to strengthen the foundations of open society amid authoritarian resurgence." The Council and the Network share the goal of education in the broadest sense, and so we are especially excited to be reaching out to our audience in New York as well as Network partners in Central Asia; the Middle East; Eastern, Central, and Western Europe; and throughout the United States.
We offer this program in the spirit of joint inquiry and mutual learning. While we are all adjusting to Zoom technology, we do so with the hope that it will encourage more reach and more genuine participation. So please ask questions. Use the Chat button and let us hear from you. Consider this program as multidirectional; we're here to learn, not to preach.
We are very lucky to have an expert in the chair for this very first program. Leslie Vinjamuri is dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy at Chatham House and associate professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and I cannot think of a better leader for this most important topic.
Leslie, thank you, and over to you.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you, Joel. I should say it's such an honor to be moderating the first in this series that I think will be tremendously productive. I couldn't choose a more important topic. This first section on "The Protests Go Global" is certainly one that is very near and dear to my heart. I'm American, but I have been based in the United Kingdom here in London since around 2007, and it has been an extraordinary several months watching America from abroad, feeling it in a very deep way, and watching protests and participating in protests on the streets of London during a global pandemic, which of course is an extraordinary context for all of us.
I first want to say that it is wonderful for me to be introduced by Joel Rosenthal. I am a great admirer of Carnegie Council and of Joel's work at the Journal, so thank you, Joel, for inviting me and for having me.
I am also just delighted and honored that SOAS is also, as is Chatham House, a partner in the Open Society University Network. This is a wonderful initiative. It is so important, and this is the beginning, so this is really exciting.
Then, when Joel said, "Would you chair Professor Mary Dudziak and Professor Brenda Gayle Plummer," I thought, My god! It just keeps getting better, because these are two scholars that I have tremendous admiration for. There are a lot of people speaking in a remarkable way about the protests, but it's hard to find two people who are this well-qualified over so many years and such a remarkable scholarly trajectory to speak to this very contemporary question, which obviously has global relevance, national relevance, and historical relevance. So it is an honor. Thank you, Joel, and thank you to everybody.
I should say first that we are on the record. We are recorded, and Joel did say in our conversations leading up to this that it is in the spirit of the series to have this be highly interactive and highly engaged, and to that end, at the end of the speakers' remarks we will invite you to ask questions, and we will invite you to unmute and speak your questions rather than using the Chat function.
The protests in global perspective are interesting, and I think some of the questions that I hope we will get to will ask about the relationship between what's happening in the United States and what's happening across the world, whether these are part of a global phenomenon or whether they are discrete things that connect but perhaps loosely, what this means for America's image on the global stage, whether the current wave of protests is likely to be sustained, and perhaps also what its role is through the pandemic.
But as I said we have two tremendous scholars here to speak with us. Let me just introduce them briefly. If I introduce them with the level of introduction that they deserve, I think it might take the full hour-and-a-half.
Professor Mary Dudziak will speak first. She is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, a historic place in and of itself for talking about these issues. Professor Dudziak is a leading legal historian of the United States and the world. She is past-president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and an honorary fellow of the American Society for Legal History.
She has written numerous books and articles, one of them—I'll say it first because it's my all-time favorite—Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, which she published in 2000. It certainly informed my doctoral work. If you haven't read it, you must. She is also the author of Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey and of War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, and she is currently writing a book on the history of American war and political accountability, another topic that is of great interest to me.
Professor Brenda Gayle Plummer is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She teaches jointly in the departments of History and Afro-American Studies, and her major research interests are the history of U.S. foreign relations, race in international affairs, African-American history, and Caribbean history. I am sure that you are familiar with her work.
In addition to a lot of her writings on the current topic that we are discussing she has written two books on Haiti. She is the author of Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960 and In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956–1974. So clearly we have some tremendous expertise here.
Professor Dudziak, I'm going to turn to you without any further ado to start us off. Thank you so much for being part of this conversation and for leading this conversation.
I will just remind everybody that we are on the record. Thank you.
MARY DUDZIAK: Thank you so much, Dr. Vinjamuri, for this generous introduction.
I just wanted to start by saying two things: One is to thank you all for being here. It is quite an honor to have an opportunity to speak with you all today and to be a on a program with Dr. Rosenthal, Dr. Vinjamuri, and a special pleasure and honor to share a program with my friend and colleague, Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer, who is a foundational figure in the field of race in foreign relations. Without her work the rest of us all would have been diminished.
I also would just like to briefly reflect on the fact that we are taping this today on September 11, 2020. September 11 is a day in the United States and perhaps globally that many reflect on death, and I am reflecting today on the deaths on September 11, 2001. I am reflecting upon the deaths from the "Forever Wars" that began in its aftermath and that continue. I'm reflecting upon the other mass death that happens in our era, including but not limited to, COVID-19. And then I am reflecting upon a particular kind of death that we are talking about today, the death of George Floyd, just one person killed by racist violence in a long history of racial violence in the United States. It was a death that triggered a particular reaction, again in a pattern of both national and global reactions to racist violence that has brought us here today, helping us reflect upon not just that moment and how it has resonated outward but also, I think, perhaps more broadly. At some later time, we can think across categories about death as not an experience but as a social event that resonates outward, and that doesn't just generate movements and feelings but can reverberate back and also generate social changes, sometimes for better or for worse. I guess I would say whether it's for better or worse is really in our hands. I think that is part of the history that we are going to talk about today.
[Slide] What I'm going to do is share with you some images which might be familiar to you. Of course, we are talking about an individual, George Floyd. This most iconic image of him actually appears in a mural painted in Berlin after his death, so George Floyd's killing by a police officer in an extraordinarily brutal and seemingly hard-to-understand event, for so long under the knee of a police officer with his hands in his pockets, and again one of what has been a long pattern of racist violence.
The murder of George Floyd, of course, generated a national reaction within the United States. People were out in the streets here in Minneapolis, which was the starting point—he was killed in Minnesota—and then resonated out all around the country and from there around the world.
[Slide] Here is a march in Paris. One of the things you will see in these signs is that there will be references specifically to the killing of George Floyd but also often references to social movements and social problems within the countries where these protests occurred.
[Slide] The quote, "I can't breathe," George Floyd's last words, are on protest signs. In one of the photos from this protest in San Remo, Italy, Stephen Biko's name appeared, and so the protesters are recognizing specific individuals killed by racist violence around the world through history.
[Slide] Sometimes the protests then expand out conceptually. Here we have a protest in Seoul, South Korea. "I can't breathe" is expanded to be an anti-imperial demand. So "I can't breathe" means more than the loss of breath and death from suffocation and more broadly the death from racist police violence, which we have seen in the United States and elsewhere, but has been broadened out to be a more political and more broadly social "I can't breathe," which has come to signify a demand for broader political, social, and cultural breath.
[Slide] This map, which by the way you can find—it would be a great research product to drill down on some of these protests in parts of the world. It is all collapsed because I had to make it small enough, but really protests all around the world. These are protests that were of 100 people or more. I think that there were likely many that aren't captured here. If you come back to the video, I have ID for the slides, so you will be able to find stuff like this, but just Google this one.
I don't have historic photos from the Civil Rights Movement, but they are also dramatic. You can find them easily online if this is something you are not already familiar with. The reaction to the murder of George Floyd is resonant in many ways with an earlier era.
[Slide] Let me just tell you about one snapshot in time. This is a statue outside a civil rights museum in Birmingham, Alabama, depicting something that happened in May of 1963, when peaceful civil rights demonstrators, young people, marched into the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, seeking justice during an era of brutal discrimination and segregation, and they were met by violent police. The police commissioner had filled the jails already, and so he called out the police dogs and fire hoses to try to suppress these young marchers with brutality.
The brutal images of young people being plastered against store windows and dogs going after protesters appeared in U.S. newspapers and newspapers around the world. It wasn't new that this kind of violence happened in the United States, but the video and still images captured attention in a way that galvanized a reaction against what happened in Birmingham.
What then results from that? Birmingham is part of this longer movement, but it helped awaken a bubble of political engagement within the United States, partly because people who were elsewhere and had no necessary personal interest—actually they were sort of racist Americans going about their daily lives—thought: This can't happen in my country. This is way beyond the pale. I don't understand why this is happening in my country.
This was a sense of how can this happen in the United States, which is supposed to be a democracy and was then holding itself up as the leading democracy in the world, and wanting to court newly emerging African and Asian nations becoming independent to ally themselves with the United States and not with the Soviet Union. It was happening in the middle of the Cold War, when there was a struggle for power between the United States and the Soviet Union just at the same time as former colonized nations are becoming independent.
People in other countries, when events like this happened, would write in their newspapers and would write letters to the U.S. embassy and to American governors and basically say, "How on earth can the world's leading democracy treat its own citizens like this," and would think: Well, if democracy allows for this kind of injustice, why is democracy such a good thing after all? Why should we pay attention to U.S. efforts to encourage us to have a democratic system of government if this is what it looks like?
So the protests and the violent reaction was not just having this local effect, not just having an effect in the movement, and not just having a national political effect, but it was also having a global effect, which then for the United States was affecting U.S. foreign relations.
Let me step back methodologically for a second. The critical race theorist Derrick Bell argued that social change doesn't happen because everybody comes to agree that the movement is just a great idea. That would be good: "It's morally right, and so we should all believe in equality."
Unfortunately, that's not the way social change happens, I would argue Derrick Bell argued. He basically said that when we have seen crucial moments of social change it has been because there has been a confluence of interests, that the people in power have their own self-interest at stake that aligns with some of the goals of the movement.
That's what happened during this era, at least, that's the way that I see it, that the foreign affairs impact of civil rights protests and violence against civil rights activists was undermining U.S. foreign relations and all U.S. diplomatic discourse. The secretary of state testified on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first critically important landmark, very important U.S. civil rights legislation, arguing that we can't win the Cold War if we don't address social injustice at home. So this aligning of foreign affairs problems and the movement meant that it was in American interests not just to be good, it was in American concrete foreign policy interests to actually accommodate some of the interests of the movement.
[Slide] One of the things that underscored that is that Birmingham happens just at the same time that African nations were coming together to try to form their own political organization. In their first 1963 meeting, which was right after the events in Birmingham, they debated whether, if things like this kept happening, there should be a break in U.S.-African relations. They didn't call for a break, but they passed a critical resolution about it.
I will stop there, but the movement was a global event. In the aftermath of Birmingham, when the March on Washington happened, which we all know about, it was actually a march that happened all around the world. People around the world marched for American civil rights reform and the United States living up to its expressed principles, but they also marched in favor of equality, justice, and decolonization in their own countries.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you. That was wonderful. There are so many questions, and I will wait until Professor Plummer has spoken, but that line you said that there was pressure on U.S. interests in being a good global power, to be good at home, raises so many profound questions about how the protests are viewed abroad in the current context. They're inspiring, but they also cast a very dark image of the United States. But I'm sure we will come back to that.
We will turn it over next to Professor Brenda Gayle Plummer to share her thoughts with us. Thank you so much, and over to you.
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Thank you. I would like to echo Mary's appreciation of Carnegie for organizing this event. It could not have come at a more timely intersection in terms of what we're going through now in U.S. history. Also, I would like to echo her thoughts about the sober reflections on 9/11.
What I would like to focus on is why is it that George Floyd becomes the center of this debate when we know that George Floyd was not the first African American to be lynched, not the first African American to be murdered by the police. Why now? Why in this particular moment did the death of George Floyd resonate so intensely with people abroad?
My part of this is to drill down a little bit on the international aspect of this and to try to trace why it is that this particular incident has had so much resonance. I think in order to do that we need to understand the way that African Americans specifically function in the world community as models, in some respects, of certain kinds of political and cultural practices.
We know that African American popular culture has circulated very widely in the world. We also know that African Americans beginning with the 19th century were very prominent in terms of trying to oppose slavery, to take stands against racism, and to seek allies in this struggle among audiences abroad. I don't think this history is well-known. Many people are not aware of a lengthy history of African American involvement in world affairs not only, by the way, as attempts to publicize African American issues but also in efforts to make linkages between the Civil Rights Movement, movements for the abolition of slavery in other places, anti-imperial movements, peace movements, and so on.
I think one way to approach this is to show visually some of what I'm talking about. Mary is very graciously hosting some slides for us that will hopefully shed some light on this question of African Americans and world affairs.
If you will begin with Frederick Douglass.
[Slide] African American international affairs really begins in the 19th century with the anti-slavery movement. This particular portrait of Douglass is juxtaposed with an emblem which commemorates Douglass's speech in Waterford, Ireland. This needs maybe a little bit of explanation.
Britain abolished slavery beginning in 1833, some 30 years before the United States. So this was an opportunity for abolitionists, that is, anti-slavery activists, to travel to the United Kingdom to speak to audiences to try to create a sympathy for the anti-slavery movement in the United States in a country which, at the time, was the anglophone capital of world culture and still is to a very large degree. Britain was perceived as being particularly influential in trying to change the climate of opinion in the United States as far as slavery was concerned.
[Slide] The journalist Ida B. Wells was a very militant defender of civil rights. She was also a feminist. She was in England after the Civil War. At this point, slavery had been abolished, but the problem that was confronting African Americans at that time was racial discrimination, segregation, and particularly lynching, violent extrajudicial murders.
Once again, activists would go abroad to try to raise international awareness of the problems that African Americans were facing in the United States. She toured notable British cities. She was in Birmingham, London, I believe Manchester, and Liverpool as well. So this is another example of this international activism that does not begin with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and does not begin with Black Power but has historical antecedents.
[Slide] In this particular photograph, James Reese Europe, a musician, is portrayed playing with his jazz band in Paris during the Great War. I included this particular image because one of the features of African American visibility abroad has been popular culture, and it has been a link to international exposure, in this instance not in terms of specific political goals but rather as a way of cultural connections, which I think have been an important aspect of the African American engagements with global issues.
[Slide] Pan-Africanism was another major feature of this outreach. This particular photograph is of the assemblage in the Pan-African Congress of 1919, in which a noted African American scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois was involved. So in addition to the appeal to established audiences in the Western European countries, we also find activities that involved people of African descent from Africa and the Caribbean play a major role in African American engagements with international issues.
[Slide] In fast-forwarding I am skipping quite a bit of detail here, but in showing these particular slides I want to give some sense of the dimensions of African American experience. I think one of the reasons why George Floyd's murder resonated so extensively abroad is that there were already some precedents and some knowledge in international communities of some of the links between issues that they confront and issues that African Americans confront.
When Martin Luther King and Coretta King placed this wreath at the Gandhi memorial, this was not the first encounter of African Americans with Gandhi. Going back to the 1930s, Gandhi had met with African Americans who wanted to learn more about nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy that they could modify and make use of in civil rights struggles here.
[Slide] The final one I wanted to show illustrates I think this knowledge of the decision of the Australian track athlete, Peter Norman, in 1968 to participate in this show of militance on the part of John Carlos and Tommie Smith. This was the Olympic protest in 1968 with raised fists with a glove to represent the medal-winning athletes' opposition to racial discrimination in the United States. All three of these men paid a price for the stand that they took, but I think what it does illustrate is that what African Americans were engaging and dealing with at home was beginning to bear some fruit in terms of global responses and global familiarity.
I think it's also important to note that African Americans also helped to introduce a kind of repertory of practices if we look, for example, at something as seemingly out of the way as the Black Panther movement in Israel. The Israeli Jews of Asian and North African descent who felt discriminated against in Israeli society by European Jews chose to call themselves "black panthers." So what we're talking about is a narrative and a set of practices that crossed the ocean and became familiar to and usable by different groups who could make use of this repertory of practices for their own particular purposes.
That's what I have to say as far as my general remarks are concerned. Maybe we can drill down into some of this as we go along.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you. That's tremendous. It is really extraordinary to see the images alongside listening to both of you to help us understand this.
First of all, I'm going to say to all of you—this is a wonderful turnout, especially for a Friday, it's just tremendous—please do be prepared. I'm going to put a question to both professors, and I will come to you.
I guess my question is a couple of things: One is: There is this wonderful story that you shared with us, Professor Plummer, of the practices, of the active engagement, of the transnationalism and the internationalism, and I really appreciate how far you go back. I think that helps us understand that this didn't begin in 2013 with the Black Lives Matter movement, which I think people know, and they certainly know a bit of the story of the Civil Rights Movement, but that broader context isn't something that we go back to—unless, of course, you work at SOAS and you frequently walk by the Peace Park and see the different statues all in the same park, and you start to imagine things in a different way.
I understand you have focused much of your research historically, but obviously you're deeply engaged in watching what's happening today. Is your understanding of the current wave of protests—we saw the map that you both shared with us—that it's similar phenomena, or do you see this spread as being very different? Is the local factor more prominent, the local specificity of protests, than it was previously, or is it more or less the same? I'm just curious about that comparative element if you might say something about that.
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Sure. It's clearly not all the same, but I think globally that many people are suffering from some similar kinds of issues. The pandemic certainly is one of them in terms of its effect in disrupting people's lives, people being evicted, people losing jobs, and the various family disruptions that occur.
I think it is also occurring at a time when globally we are struggling with the rise of authoritarian regimes and the provocations that that has caused. I think there is also an issue—and this was going on even before, say, the last decade or so—of an increase in inequality globally in terms of the material resources available to people and growing resentment of the blatant way in many respects in which this inequality is being displayed, and environmental degradation.
I think in some respects the George Floyd case was the "straw that broke the camel's back" in terms of a lot of issues that people were experiencing all over the world. Of course, again there is local specificity to these issues, but I think it's very interesting that once again there is a repertory of practices, ideas, and ways of representation. We saw that in Mary's slides, where people all over the world were saying, "I can't breathe." That "I can't breathe," I think, represents people's feeling of being suffocated by a host of conditions, some global and others local.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Professor Dudziak, before we open it up, I'm curious. You have written so much about the relationship between civil rights in the United States, in America, and democracy and America's role on the global stage, and human rights. I want to ask that civil rights/human rights question: Does the language of civil rights—in your understanding and your scholarship—travel, or does it not matter? Are the languages of civil rights and human rights inextricably linked when you start to talk about protests going global? And does that matter in terms of whether people see the protests as part of a global movement or something that is specifically American that has spilled over and translated in a different way?
MARY DUDZIAK: That's an interesting question. I think sometimes we get too locked into the relationship between civil rights and human rights. As a law professor I would say when we're talking about civil rights we are usually talking about domestic reform issues, and when we're talking about human rights we're usually thinking about international human rights concepts. There are relationships between them, but at least formally—which actually is what law professors have to do sometimes—they're not always the same thing because a civil rights regime can have a certain set of domestically enforceable norms and mechanisms that do not necessarily map on to international human rights, and then international human rights is also beyond—developing international law is a movement and an idea.
I think in some ways the more useful commonality is race and forms of oppression. When we see these movements erupting and then using common language and having, to some degree, both parallel objectives but also very specific and local and country-by-country objectives, it's really that effort to—
I think coming back to the idea of "I can't breathe," the idea as Professor Plummer put it of suffocation socially, politically, and in one's own day-to-day life, is what is resonating collectively, whether or not we would frame it as a civil versus human rights kind of effort.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: I appreciate that answer, not least because, of course, generally speaking America doesn't have the best reputation globally at the moment on questions of human rights, so the idea that race becomes a unifying factor and that the image and symbolic power of primarily peaceful protests in America has had such global appeal helps possibly to create a different image of how democracy works in the United States. But that's a bigger conversation, and you have intimated that there was a motivation in there earlier in history. I think we might come back to it.
I want to turn to Florin. I'm going to allow you to talk, and then ideally Grady after you.
QUESTION [Florin Badita]: Hi, I'm Florin. I'm the Founder of Corruption Kills, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Romania, where we use protests to put pressure on government.
My question was—and this is my personal struggle also, and if you can provide also maybe resources—we are the biggest NGO in Romania doing this, but it is hard to find people from other countries who are working. We are more into anti-corruption, but we collaborate with environment, with social justice, and other topics. Where could we find other persons or groups or individuals that are interested in doing this so we could connect, if you have some tips or suggestions?
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: It's a broad question, and your range of issues is also very broad. Actually, I really can't answer that because it seems to me that just based on the Internet that you would be able to make some connections. Maybe Mary can be more specific.
MARY DUDZIAK: I'm not sure I can be more specific, but if I can just say I started political organizing when the Internet didn't exist and we actually had to use telephones, someone actually had to be present at another phone in order to move things forward.
As Dr. Plummer suggested there is a world of resources out there for you. I think we're not the ones in our scholarly little areas to know the activists and the social movements on the ground in different places. But I basically encourage you to reach out, and the Internet is made for that. I wish you the best of luck.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: It might even be extraordinary what you find through your participation with students and colleagues in the Open Society University Network, I would hasten to add, if you are part of that. But thank you, Florin.
Grady, it would be wonderful to hear your question.
QUESTION [Grady Jacobsen]: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much to you both for your being here.
My question was sparked by a recent article by Senator Chris Murphy that was published in Foreign Affairs, where he argued that a renewed focus on civil rights in America is actually a foreign policy win. I was wondering if you believe that struggling with racial justice issues undermines or supports the idea of the United States as a guardian of human rights around the world. In other words, does it make the United States seem hypocritical for preaching a message it does not practice or more genuine for confronting its own civil rights issues at home?
LESLIE VINJAMURI: That's a terrific question. It's a big question for scholars, it's a big question for the world.
Maybe we will go in reverse order. Professor Dudziak, would you like to try that?
MARY DUDZIAK: Yes, sure.
Let me say a couple of things—and thank you, Grady, for raising that and pointing to that particular essay.
The broad range of scholarship on this issue shows with great particularity that racism at home undermines U.S. standing around the world. So the existence of racism, which is well-known worldwide, has for over a century undermined U.S. relations with other countries and with peoples of other countries.
Being a historian, let me address the history story. When the United States acted, for example, after Birmingham, and finally there was enough happening to pressure first the Kennedy administration, who had to be pushed, and then the Johnson administration, who also had a goal of doing some social justice reform but also had to be pushed by the movement and by international pressure, once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it along with other reforms, had an important impact on international opinion. The United States basically marketed it and it became part of, essentially, U.S. global propaganda programming to argue that the process from slavery to freedom showed that democracy was a form of government that allowed for social change. They actually in the propaganda brought up slavery as a way to say, "Look how far we've come." So there was that narrative that was spun that took important actual reforms and packaged them in a way to argue that the United States was essentially better for all the world.
But let me just say that we can think about racial equality and social justice as important to U.S. international relations without necessarily having the global supremacy layer on it. It doesn't need to be in service of beating the Soviet Union in a Cold War framework; it doesn't need to be in service of U.S. global dominance because maybe that's actually part of the problem.
I guess what I would say is that whatever the foreign policy goals of the United States are, whether it's old fashioned—"We need to be on top of everything"—or whether it's more of a multilateral approach, dealing with racial injustice at home is important to other countries basically taking the United States seriously and thinking of the United States as an ally, especially for countries with significant non-white populations. It's a "win" in the language of the foreign policy elites. But it is also a positive whether or not the goal is the traditional idea of U.S. global supremacy.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Can I ask you one specific question on that because I think it's a really important debate, and you put it very well in terms of what the historical research has shown, but what about the protest question? Having a poor record on racial inequality and injustice is not good for America's role in the world, but what about protests? Do people look at protests and say, "That's democracy as work," or do they say, "Oh, my god, America's falling apart"? Is there any sort of historical look at that particular question?
MARY DUDZIAK: Sure. The bottom line is the movement is going to be the movement, and there is going to be protest, and so what are you going to have? You're either going to have suppressing the protest or you're going to have the local, state, and national government saying: "You've got free speech rights, we respect your ability to have your say, let's try to manage this in a way that we don't have an armed group on the other side of the street."
In terms of the U.S. image and the United States as a model, the goal has to be to allow for free speech to actually encourage movements of people who have been oppressed and are seeking social justice to understand and be sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement. For heaven's sake, this is a historic record of police violence toward Black people in the United States and other people of color. To embrace the voices and to try to create more non-violent environments for that, how does that happen? It doesn't happen by bringing out militarized police forces and pummeling peaceful demonstrators and reporters. What we have been seeing is the exact opposite.
There should be protests of all kinds. That's part of democracy, and the problem is the effort to suppress protest by local, state, or national leaders and police forces.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you.
Professor Plummer, would you like to add to this?
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: The only thing I would say is that as the subtitle of Mary's book, Cold War Civil Rights, suggests, the United States spent a lot of time on imagery, on giving the impression that it was solving the race problem here. What they were doing essentially was postponing that solution into an indefinite future.
What has to happen now is that the United States has to get real. This cannot be about an image, it has to be about genuine solutions to genuine problems.
QUESTION [Deen Chaterjee, University of Utah]: First, I would like to comment. This program and programs like this that Carnegie Council have been initiating all along on these timely issues. I would like to thank and show appreciation to Dr. Joel Rosenthal, the thought leader at the Council.
With that, I would like to just make one comment. Perhaps it's more a comment than a question. Because of the preeminence of American culture all around the world where what happens in America is immediately well-known all over the world, the rest of the world knows America's high points as well as low points, in fact often more so than we get to know in this country when it comes to other countries. Given that, of course those prominent African Americans you showed in your program who took the message abroad about American slavery and racial injustice, prominent African Americans in the United States as well are very well-known abroad, and what they have said and done also resonates well in the world. As a result, what happened in the George Floyd case simply triggered something that has been brewing in the consciousness and knowledge of the outside world.
For example, America is well known as one of the two modern slave nations in the world, along with Brazil. Muhammad Ali, perhaps one of the most well-known and respected Americans abroad, is well-known for his very pronounced comments about America's racial injustice. He refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, for which he paid a big price at the height of his career. He is known all over the world for his famous comments about America's racism. He said: "I am not going to go for the war in which white folks enlist black folks to fight against yellow folks to save a country that they stole from the red folks." So he said it is a racist war and I'm not going to be a part of that.
Of course, I just cited only one instance. The rest of the world knows well about America's standing legacy of this problem, so what happened with George Floyd simply triggered it all over the world, but it has been brewing in the consciousness of the rest of the world for quite a long time. So that's my comment.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you. That's a powerful comment, and I want to see if Professor Plummer wants to respond to it. Because America is so visible, the magnitude of the effect is outsized. There are things going on all over the world, but everybody sees what's happening in America.
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Yes. I think one thing needs to be said. My remarks emphasize the historical role of African Americans. But one of the interesting features of contemporary American life is that there are now other groups of people of color who are merging into American politics, for example.
We also have the demographic fact that now some 36 percent of the American population consists of people of color, not only African Americans but Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. So I think perhaps an additional factor in terms of what's changing and what is perhaps resonating at this moment is the arrival of these groups into American politics. I think this is an interesting ingredient to look at because we are no longer demographically what we were even 20 years ago.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you.
MARY DUDZIAK: I think all I would add to that is to second Professor Plummer's point and to say that one of the really important developments is the diversification of our political leadership. We can't have a country that has all-white leadership, and we don't have a country that has all-white leadership anymore. It's not just that we had Barack Obama as president, but to have Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and "The Squad" and this wonderful, dynamic, and very diverse set of members of Congress.
We need to see that at all levels of government. We need to see it in both parties. We need to see it in any party that there is. When we get past this two-party binary, that would probably be good too. Basically breaking down white supremacy needs to be a national and global project. So it's really great to see some level of diversity—there is so much farther to go—in American political leadership.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you. So many things I could ask, but I will restrain myself for now and come to J.D. Estrill.
QUESTION [J.D. Estrill]: Good afternoon. I am actually calling from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My question has two parts. As a veteran I tend to look at things by way of strategy and tactic. The two part question is this: Ultimately public policy will be the determinant. How do we get people to understand that moving beyond protest to public policy [is important]? I bring that up in lieu of—my assumptions are that the concept of the protest and what it has meant has come by way of Dr. Martin Luther King. However, I think a lot of people fail to realize that ultimately his objective was to affect public policy. So how do we get people to understand what it means now to move beyond protest to affect public policy?
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Great question. Who wants to take that first?
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Well, I can start.
As everybody knows, both of us on this panel are academics. One of my jobs I think in terms of advancing this is to teach. I have found that it was important to teach in the civil rights class that I have the history of disenfranchisement, the relationship of the struggles to vote "back in the day," as they say, and that relationship to current forms of voter suppression, and I think people get it. I think once people see that when we are talking about the civil rights movement we're not talking about something that died or that is over or succeeded, we're talking about a struggle that is still going on. I think it's very important to make those kinds of connections, and I try to make them as a scholar. So I think there is a role for education here, and there is a role for convincing people that despite the flaws of the electoral system it's really important to get in there and to do what you can to change it.
MARY DUDZIAK: That was a great support for the project of universities, so thank you, Professor Plummer.
I would say, Mr. Estrill, that I don't think of protest and policy as being sequential, I think of them as needing to coexist. If you think about this crucial period of the civil rights movement as an example—1963, 1964, 1965—the movement was seeking social change. The movement was not seeking the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That particular crucial landmark piece of legislation became a goal partly because of the legislative skills of President Lyndon Johnson. He was able to cobble together the level of bipartisan support to get a very strong civil rights bill through Congress.
But that didn't meet all the needs of the movement, all the needs of communities of color around the United States. LBJ then is returning to other matters, but can't because my former congressman, John Lewis, and other civil rights activists put their lives on the line. One of the things they did was marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and got brutally beaten, and that kept civil rights on the agenda. That was part of the context that helped lead to the passage of a landmark Voting Rights Act. That might make it look a little bit sequential, but basically the goals of the movement were broader than could be captured in any piece of legislation.
You are so right. People have to be strategic, but there is not one grand strategizer. Instead, the movement is seeking change as quick as possible. Some group that is between political leadership and the movement and has membership in both perhaps come together and say, "I think we can get this kind of bill through that would solve the following important problems," and you get enough movement support for that, you get enough political support for that, and you do it. There wasn't a sense at the time that the Civil Rights Act was passed that that was the be-all and end-all. It was just a piece that could be passed. Then, political leadership thinks, Check mark, we're done, and I can do other things that are going to help me get reelected, and then again it's the movement.
So I basically think that we need to be comfortable with the protest. The protest is democracy in action. It's the people having a voice, and I think one of the best things that can happen is for people to be able to speak politically as they can. It's much more effective to have a social movement like that.
My husband's version, and he's fabulous but he actually has been—I don't know if he's still doing it—writing individual old-fashioned letters with postage to his senators every time something happens. That's important, and it's great to have those pieces of paper show up in your local Senate offices, but the movement in Atlanta has had a bigger voice than him, obviously, and you need to have across-the-board broad political action that people listen to and hear. The thing about a movement is that it gets in the media, people have to address it. My husband's senators, nothing is going to happen to them politically if they ignore my husband.
So again, the movement has a role. It has to be listened to. And then legislation is a fix and important, but it never encompasses everything that a social movement wants. So the process of change and strategy and protest have to be continued together through time. That's the way I would look at it.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Fabulous. It is a tall order, right? It takes time, energy, mobilization, and capacity to go out and protest. One of the things that, of course, everybody has talked about a lot in the last several months is the tragic fact that increased unemployment, especially amongst young people, has created an opportunity for young people to engage in protests on Monday morning rather than having to make a choice between that and going to work. So I think there is also this practical question: What happens if or when that situation changes? How much does the current situation of those who protest affect their ability to sustain the movement? I just think the current moment is extraordinarily interesting for so many reasons but not least that one.
I was in Omaha, Nebraska, a few days ago, and my nephew was facing this choice. He has been out protesting every day, and he said now he's working and it's a little bit more complicated, but they turn up at night, and that's more complicated because then there is a question of what happens after dark.
Erin, I wanted to turn to you.
QUESTION [Erin Dworkin]: Hi. My question is, there was mention of how the global protests reflect some of the issues that are going on within the individual countries as well as the Black Lives Matter and anti-racist movements that are happening within the United States. I was wondering if there is ever concern that the message that is going on within the United States could be diluted within the global protests.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Professor Plummer, would you like to take that?
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: As I indicated before, these issues are not identical. I think the bigger problem is that George Floyd's murder would be diluted by broader protests in this country. I think that has been a concern, particularly in the cities of Portland, Minneapolis, and Seattle, that larger grievances that people have might overshadow the concrete concerns of African Americans who are residents in these local cities and whose problems with the police and with other entities in those cities are being drowned out. In part this is a media issue to the extent that, in the search for vivid and flamboyant issues, it's much easier to focus on fires and fireworks than on the less exciting and scintillating slog through specific kinds of political issues.
With regard to the international, one of the issues that we have not really talked about much yet is the fact that just as the United States is becoming increasingly a country in which there are people of color, so are countries in Europe. The "empire has come home" for countries like the United Kingdom and France. Larger numbers of people from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are coming to countries like Germany, for example, and also to countries that never had much of a foreign empire. So the question of race, to the extent that it has been at the center of a lot of these justice movements and problems of injustice, I think is not limited to the United States, but I think it is something that we are witnessing in accounts of incidents and events abroad as well.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Professor Dudziak?
MARY DUDZIAK: All I wanted to say was, Erin, I appreciated your question and I thought that Professor Plummer's comments were apt.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Fabulous.
Sara, let me allow you to talk. If you unmute yourself, then you're on.
QUESTION [Sarra Moneir]: Yes, hello. My name is Sarra, and I am actually calling you from Egypt, so I am completely away from the United States.
My question in many ways goes back to my own experience from the Egyptian context. I know this is not today's topic, but I do believe that there are some similarities, especially with the concept of death that was discussed at the very beginning, in the first 15 minutes or something, on death becoming an experience. I spent quite some time working on this in my dissertation.
Again, I know the context might be a little bit different, but I'm sure that there are some similarities with the concept of death and how it becomes one form or one component of daily life resistances in many ways and in other ways how death becomes "business as usual." Unfortunately, as time goes by, methods of trying to save the sanctity of death by the government become less and less serious. I'm sure that there are other dimensions to this in the current situation in the United States after the murder of George Floyd, so I would love to hear your perspective on this. Thank you.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Who would like to take that?
MARY DUDZIAK: If I could jump in, Sarra Moneir, let me just say we're actually working in interesting areas, and it might be useful to follow up with each other's work. I'm actually writing about death but in the context of American war and American war politics.
The way you described the Egyptian context is so interesting because it's actually a flip to the way I see the impact of death on American war politics, for example. Americans have little understanding, they experience death through seeing numbers of casualties, casualty lists, but if we think of the importance of death resonating with the sensory experience of it, as a general rule—and here we can talk about deaths like George Floyd's—the sensory experience for Americans of the death that's experienced in contemporary American wars is sanitized. It can't be directly seen, it can't be heard, it can't be smelled. The broader sensory experience of death for people in a war zone encompasses all the senses.
One thing that I'm interested in is, does it matter—I would say yes, but how does it matter?—that this experience of death is so absent for a country that is engaging for a long period of time in projecting war elsewhere. Essentially, what happened when American war moved offshore? The whole 20th century is a century of American war happening in other places and the death being experienced by civilians in other countries and in American territories like the Philippines and Hawaii at the time.
So it's very interesting that you talk about death as "business as usual." What I'm hearing you say, and it's very interesting and again on some level different from the United States, is that more sort of corporeal experience of death becoming routinized and regular. I'm projecting a little bit about your ideas, that it is them not having that level of surprise and reaction. That would suggest that once death becomes more business as usual up close, it lacks the—
[Professor Dudziak is disconnected]
LESLIE VINJAMURI: I'm going to ask Brenda if she wants to comment on this.
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: The thing that I would say is that when we watched George Floyd being killed and when we see these videos that people are taking on cellphones we become spectators essentially at a lynching. When we talk about death I think we're not only talking about it as an event that's sanitized, but it's an event that we witness. We are as much spectators at a lynching as people were in 1920 or 1930, when lynching was a common practice.
So I think looking at death in a sense we are forced into complicity through this form of spectatorship, and it desensitizes us. What Mary has been saying is spot-on. I think there is also a sense in which this becomes a matter of private witness as well.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: I'm sure that Professor Dudziak is joining us again when she can, but we are right up to the last bit of time, so I have to choose one final question for you, Professor Plummer. I'm going to ask maybe a two-part final question. I'm going to ask Zoe's question rather than mine because that's only fair.
Zoe Moffitt says: "Another sign at many protests is 'Enough is enough.' It is a 400-year-old crisis. How can the United States be real about the still-wide presence and tolerance of racism and white supremacy in this country? This has risen and fallen through the entire history of the country and other former colonizer countries so that there has been social and legal progress and then violent backlash including lynching, hate speech, conflicts such as Charlottesville, and attachment to the Confederate flag. What in policy can address change in hearts and minds in such long-embedded traditions?"
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Well, this is not going to change overnight, that's for sure. We have had, as Zoe suggests, a long buildup here.
First steps have to be to recoup some lost narratives about the potential of this country. It's not about "making America great again", it's about restoring and revising the democratic potential of the country. How you do that? It has to be, as Mary suggested earlier, an effort of multiple types of activities. There has to be protest, there has to be normal politics, as disagreeable as that might be, there has to be education, and there has to be both moral suasion, if you will, as well as direct political action.
Again, many people are impatient and want all of this to happen tomorrow. It's not going to happen tomorrow. It took a long time for reactionary elements in this society to build the present order, and it's going to take a long time to change it.
LESLIE VINJAMURI: Thank you for that answer. It's pragmatic, it's realistic, but it's not lacking at all in inspiration, and I think we certainly need that. I should say that we get a lot of it from yourself and your research and scholarship and from Professor Dudziak and her scholarship and commitment interlaced with deep empirical research and a real passion for what is a really valuable— [broken connection].
I can see Joel is with us. We have come to the end of this first in the series. Again, Joel, thank you so much to Carnegie.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Leslie, and thank you to the panelists. This was a great kick-off. We really appreciate it.
BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Thank you.