Commentary |
12 June 2020

Black Americans Push U.S. to Live Up To Its Ideals

Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Lydia Khalil
Lydia Khalil

For many years, America’s image and standing in the world, particularly since the election of President Donald J. Trump, has declined. This has reduced the ability of the United States to effectively advocate for human rights and the rule of law. U.S. strategic failures in the global war on terrorism, the George W. Bush administration‘s misguided freedom agenda, and the Barack Obama administration’s unwillingness to engage with the Arab Spring all incrementally contributed to the sense that the U.S. promotion of human rights was cynically deployed and not a part of its foundational ideals. President Trump’s embrace of autocrats served to confirm that belief.

The current protests against police brutality have exposed just how deep systemic racism and polarization run in the United States. People around the world have been dismayed at how Trump is stoking and exploiting these divisions. 

However, the protests also reveal that America’s commitment to human rights and the universal application of the rule of law lies not only within its political leadership or institutions—which have too often entrenched racism and inequality—but within its civil society, particularly within Black civil society. As Pulitzer Prize winning author Nikole Hannah Jones writes, “Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom . . . the perfectors of this democracy.” 

Because of the work and leadership of Black civil society to universally apply human rights at home, the United States can more authentically promote human rights abroad. U.S. leaders have often invoked efforts led by Black Americans, such as the abolition movement, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and course corrections on U.S. immigration policy, that have allowed people of all backgrounds to thrive in the United States as an example of effective democracy on the world stage.

Now they can add one more to the list—the Black Lives Matter movement—which was started in response to America’s domestic blights but has inspired global demonstrations against racism and for universal human rights. Once again, Black Americans are pushing the United States to live up to its democratic ideals.