Why Black Americans Should Care More About Foreign Affairs
That wild world out there affects us here at home
WHY BLACK AMERICANS SHOULD CARE MORE ABOUT FOREIGN AFFAIRS
That wild world out there affects us here at home
Former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill famously quipped “all politics is local.” Though that’s not literally true, black Americans have seemingly taken O’Neill’s words to heart. While most Americans traditionally focus their attention on domestic issues rather than foreign ones, black Americans do so perhaps more than any other group. Indeed, polling data indicates that black Americans are even less knowledgeable about current international affairs than are white Americans, who themselves generally have a shaky grasp of the rest of the world.
This focus on domestic issues is understandable. The black community has long waged battles at home against slavery, Jim Crow, and unequal treatment in general. And despite the abolition of most formal mechanisms of racism in the United States, racial equality remains elusive. For most black Americans, getting things right at home has a higher priority than getting things right abroad.
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But alongside this emphasis on local matters is a small but important history of involvement by black Americans in diplomatic and military affairs. For example, James Weldon Johnson served as U.S. consul in Venezuela (1906 to 1908) and then Nicaragua (1909 to 1913). The scholar Ralph Bunche was a United Nations (UN) official who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to broker a peace agreement between the Arab States and Israel. During the 1960s, Carl Rowan was ambassador to Finland, director of the U.S. Information Agency, and a member of the National Security Council. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice both served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is the current U.S. ambassador to the UN (and the fifth black American to hold that position.), while Susan E. Rice has been involved in foreign policymaking at high levels for many years.
On the Congressional side, Representative Donald M. Payne, Sr., a Democrat representing Newark, NJ, took a deep interest in global affairs. During his twelve terms (1988-2012), Payne was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, a member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, the co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Foreign Policy and National Security Task Force, and other committees focused on international affairs.
On the military side, Lloyd Austin is the current secretary of defense, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is the current chief of staff of the Air Force, and Lt. Gen. Michael Langley is the nation’s first black four-star Marine general. Colin Powell, in addition to his other national security positions, also served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Austin, Brown, Langley, and Powell are in a distinguished line of black Americans who have served in the highest echelons of the military. Others include Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who in 1940 became the first black general officer in the U.S. Army, and Joseph Paul Reason, the first black person to attain the rank of four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Military service also enabled black veterans to play an essential role in the civil rights movement. Many black veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War returned home to the South, only to again confront Jim Crow. But thanks to the confidence they gained from their wartime experience, these veterans rejected the racial status quo and seized many civil rights previously denied to them.
In the academic realm there are several private scholarly organizations dedicated to promoting black involvement in foreign policy. And from the 1920s to the 1950s a group of black scholars at Howard University—including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan, Eric Williams, Merze Tate, and E. Franklin Frazier—formed the influential Howard School of International Relations.
Today, however, the situation in academia is much different. There is no equivalent school of international relations in which black scholars play prominent roles. While there are indeed several excellent black scholars who write about the larger world, none of the ten most influential scholars of International Relations are black; the situation appears to be the same for American diplomatic and military history.
The black American public and individual black private citizens have at times also engaged with the rest of the world. After World War II many black Americans raised their voices against European colonialism and critiqued American foreign policy. Intellectual leaders such as W. E. B. Dubois took up permanent residence in Africa, while black missionaries have been active there for almost two centuries. At the behest of the State Department, during the Cold War many prominent black jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, traveled the world as jazz ambassadors. The anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s and 1980s also engaged many prominent black Americans as well as the broader black community. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Reverend Jesse Jackson became well known in part for embarking on self-appointed diplomatic missions, most often to meet with America’s foes to secure the release of American hostages.
But these notable exceptions are in many ways just that: exceptions. Secretary of State Rice once complained that “I can go into a meeting at the Department of State—and as a matter fact I can go into a whole day of meetings at the Department of State—and actually rarely see somebody who looks like me. And that is just not acceptable.”
Overall, however, the numbers of black people at Foggy Bottom aren’t too bad. As of the end of March 2022, 70.3 percent of Civil Service/Foreign Service officers were white, while 15.5 percent were black. This latter figure is roughly equivalent to the percent of black people in the U.S. population.
Yet things are much different at the ambassador level. By the end of the Trump administration, only three of 189 U.S. ambassadors were black. And if we look at the history of black U.S. ambassadorial appointments since the first one in 1949, the overwhelming majority were to developing nations.
The history of black involvement in international affairs potentially offers a blueprint for meeting current and future challenges. In an increasingly globalized world, what happens overseas can directly affect what happens at home. Given black Americans’ relative economic deprivation, educational deficits, greater vulnerability to certain diseases, and outsized representation in the U.S. armed forces, they are at heightened risk of being impacted more powerfully by overseas events than other Americans. Keeping a finger on the pulse of U.S. foreign and military policy and world events in general, as well as taking part in debates on these topics, would be a wise investment for black Americans, helping them to secure a better present and future for themselves and their country. Below are six areas that deserve greater attention from the black community.
The Global Economy
Black Americans would be well advised to pay more attention to the global economy. The United States has long been deeply involved with the rest of the world economically, and globalized financial networks and supply chains strongly influence the domestic economy. These impacts can touch black Americans directly. For instance, the supply chain crisis especially harmed black-owned businesses. Coming on the heels of a disruptive pandemic, the supply chain problems exacerbated the challenges black businesses already faced, including losing market share, difficulty gaining access to capital, and often having insufficient funds to respond to economic setbacks. Raising prices in response to scarcities caused by the supply chain crisis is a questionable strategy, as it could add to the economic burdens of a black community still reeling from the pandemic.
Another development is that more goods consumed by Americans are being produced offshore. Deeper knowledge about the fluidity of goods and capital in the international economy can help black Americans to take advantage of this phenomenon by making wise investments in foreign companies and in U.S. companies that do business overseas. Such knowledge can also help them take steps to cushion themselves from the repercussions of economic disruptions, which can include decreased profits, increased unemployment, falling stock prices, and diminished savings. Globalization in some form is here to stay, and black Americans would do well by preparing themselves to take a larger part in it.
Speaking a foreign language has traditionally been a weak spot for Americans. As of 2018, 67.3 million Americans spoke a foreign language. This works out to 80 percent who speak only English. America’s relative monolingualism is more pronounced among black Americans. According to Pew Research, “The vast majority of the Black population as of 2019 speaks English very well or only speaks English at home (96%), while almost nine-in-ten (89%) speak only English at home.”
Not knowing a second language limits one’s professional and social opportunities. Therefore, black Americans could expand their opportunities by learning a foreign language to improve their communication with and understanding of other parts of the globe. Entrepreneurs would be especially wise to learn a second language. Competing in the international marketplace is easier if you can understand your customers’ culture and can discuss business affairs in their native tongue.
The same is true at home. The continuing growth of the country’s Asian and Hispanic/Latino population represents potential customers who might appreciate a businessperson who speaks their native (or primary non-English) language, even at a basic level. As in much of our social life, it’s the thought that counts.
Although international travel declined recently because of public and private restrictions brought on by the pandemic, the ease of movement of people and goods around the world has opened the door to the rapid spread of diseases, which respect no boundaries. While COVID-19 began in Wuhan, China in late 2019, it had reached the United States by January 2020. For various reasons, black Americans have been contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans, and suffering more severe health outcomes. Because black Americans are generally at a higher risk of infection from certain diseases, paying greater attention to global health is an important way to safeguard their own well-being. Moreover, numerous studies have documented the relationship between ill health and social equality. Keeping abreast of matters of global health is a good first step toward defending one’s own health. This knowledge can be used to prod government officials to take steps to help protect a vulnerable population from the ravages of diseases that spread more rapidly than ever before.
The Global Environment
Linked to global health is the global environment. The earth’s environment is undergoing change continuously, and these changes can have far-reaching ripple effects. However, black Americans generally lack the financial wherewithal relative to other groups to protect themselves from negative changes in the environment. For example, rising sea levels will probably force many communities to move inland. Making these costly moves will be particularly difficult for many black people, who have, on average, very low wealth.
When done correctly, taking unilateral steps to protect the environment can yield benefits. But because the environment affects all countries, multilateral efforts are more effective. Black Americans should monitor the environment both at home and abroad and be prepared to enter the debate over the best way for the U.S. government to respond to this important issue.
Military operations, which form a part of the nation’s foreign policy, is another area that black Americans should devote greater attention to. Black Americans serve in the nation’s armed forces in numbers that exceed their percentage of the country’s population. When the United States engages in military operations, many black Americans will take part and put their lives on the line. Because black Americans may pay a comparatively higher price should the United States take to the battlefield, questions of war and peace should be near the top of their political concerns. The decision to go to war is a domestic issue; but knowing what is happening in the world’s hot spots and taking part in the debate can help clarify the risks and costs of any potential military action, and it can help determine whether the national interest is truly at stake.
The International Drug Trade
Despite the United States’ long war on drugs, victory is nowhere in sight, which is something that should especially concern black Americans. Drugs have hurt the entire country, but they have especially ravaged the black community. Millions of black men and women have been imprisoned, while in 2020 there were 54.1 fatal drug overdoses for every 100,000 black men in the United States. Both drug use and the War on Drugs eviscerate black families, especially by depriving many of them of fathers and thereby increasing the number of children reared in single-parent households. Several negative effects are associated with children emerging from these circumstances, including greater risk of child abuse, educational deficiencies, and involvement with crime.
Learning where illegal drugs are produced, how they enter the United States, and what are the best strategies to staunch this deadly traffic should be a top priority for the black community. For example, China’s production of fentanyl has fueled the United States’ growing opioid crisis. Having knowledge on these matters would help black Americans better engage in the debate over international drug policy.
What to Do?
To improve their health and standard of living, as well as increase their political influence, black Americans need to better understand the world and how the United States operates within it. To this end, they need to make a greater effort to learn foreign languages, travel overseas, take courses on foreign policy and international relations, and join the Foreign Service, or at least familiarize themselves with events and trends in foreign countries. Having a stronger grasp of the rest of the world will enable them to be more informed voters who will support candidates that promote policies and strategies that will help the black community. A strengthened black America also benefits U.S. foreign policy. The United States cannot credibly make the case for democracy and human rights abroad if it fails to uphold them for its black citizens at home.
Helpfully, the U.S. government offers opportunities for black Americans to increase their knowledge of and engagement in foreign policy. These opportunities include internships offered by government agencies and scholarships and fellowships for black students considering careers in foreign and defense policy. The State Department currently offers a paid internship, while the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, named after the longtime Democratic congressman from New York, seeks to attract and prepare young people for careers as diplomats in the Foreign Service. The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Program also offers opportunities to join the Foreign Service, while the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth provides critical language study overseas for U.S. high school students.
To help persuade the U.S. government to further attend to their international interests, those black Americans interested in foreign policy could help reinvigorate existing (or dormant) lobbies like TransAfrica Forum, which has been, as far as I have been able to determine, out of the news, and possibly not active, for several years now. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People can also play a role in focusing black Americans’ attention on foreign policy issues, as it did in the early 1920s when it investigated claims of human rights abuses during the U.S. occupation of Haiti. As a practical matter, the organization could do so by devoting more coverage in its official journal, The Crisis (founded in 1910 by W. E. B. Du Bois and others), to international stories, and include interviews with top officials in the State and Defense Departments as well as the Agency for International Development, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce. By doing so, The Crisis could explain to its readers why foreign policy and global events should matter to them.
Colleges and universities can help matters by encouraging black students to take courses on diplomatic and military history, as well as international studies. Offering Model UN or Model Organization of American States programs would be helpful. Business schools should expand relations with black-owned businesses to hold entrepreneurship boot camps and teach current or aspiring entrepreneurs how to operate in the global economy, while offering opportunities to meet with representatives from international businesses. Business schools should also facilitate mentor programs for would-be or early career entrepreneurs.
Most Americans are unsure about geography, lack knowledge about world events or how they affect U.S. interests, and are often undecided on how the government should respond to those events. While major shocks beyond America’s borders affect all Americans, black Americans are particularly vulnerable. Whether it is the international drug trade, global pandemics, the vicissitudes of the global economy, or war, black Americans cannot escape the consequences that flow from each, which are likely to hit them harder than other groups.
To better prepare for possible shocks and take advantage of opportunities offered by the global marketplace, black Americans should become more conversant with international events and U.S. foreign policy. Learning other languages, reading about foreign events, traveling abroad, taking courses in subjects that are foreign-focused, and befriending people born outside the United States are good steps to take. Those with the financial means could host an exchange student or send one of their children abroad. Parents and students should demand their schools offer foreign language training. These steps and others will enable black Americans to take advantage of globalization, better withstand global crises, and play a larger role in the world.
Michael H. Creswell is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University, the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe, and an executive editor at History: Reviews of New Books. A specialist on the Cold War, Creswell is currently writing a book that examines the increasing difficulties Americans have in communicating in socially and politically productive ways.
Journal of Free Black Thought is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
From one way of reading this commentary, I agree just about 100%. From another read, it got me thinking about the premise. Take the quote by Susan Rice and her attending meetings at the State Department. About her not seeing others that looked like her sitting around the table. I imagined myself sitting at that table and finding most looking like me but not thinking like me. That I wouldn't identify with them. So, are Susan Rice and I sitting at the same table (assuming I was qualified to sit there)? Or what? Maybe it's just about what different communities find interesting when they have opportunities rather than being attracted to what some say they ought to be interested in -- even if the rational argument makes compelling sense.
So true. One of the 7 tenets of Bayard Rustin's organization, Black Americans to Support Israel Committee was "Arab oil prices have had a disastrous effect upon blacks in America and in Africa." I don't think many were thinking about the issue on that level.