Panelists discuss international perceptions of the United States and how the current domestic unrest may affect the country’s ability to promote global democracy and human rights.
PENN: Thank you so much. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “Unrest at Home and U.S. Foreign Policy.” I’m Kal Penn. I’m an actor and a former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion, “Unrest at Home and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
I’m joined today by three phenomenal folks. Mary Dudziak, the Asa Griggs Candler professor of law, Emory University School of Law. Uzra Zeya, president and chief executive officer at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. And Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University.
And I wanted to begin today a purposely broad question, as the topic is. You know, the last several months have been historic in terms of the social justice movement. On July 3, the New York Times said that Black Lives Matter may have been—or may be, rather—the largest movement in American history. Protests have, of course, been global. We’ve also been dealing with immigration and travel restrictions, economic uncertainty, and obviously a global pandemic. But inequality and unrest are not new, are they? I’d like each of you to give us your assessment of what exactly is happening today and how we got here. So, Mary, maybe we’ll start with you.
DUDZIAK: So let me say a little about the broader history of the impact of race discrimination and racial protests on U.S. foreign relations. This is a topic that’s very familiar to foreign affairs historians. There’s a deep literature on this. And Foreign Affairs has been doing a great job recently covering some of it with an essay, for example, by Brenda Gayle Plummer. And just one example. You know, during the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights movement had a global audience. And the world paid deep attention to race discrimination in the U.S., asking the question persistently: How could the United States argue that it was a leader of the world and a leading democracy in the world when within the United States people were beaten for trying to register to vote, peaceful demonstrators were brutalized?
And what did this show about democracy as a system of government? American diplomats started to be aware of this and worry about it, at least in the late 1940s. And then the issue picked up steam as—partly because American diplomats started to understand that they couldn’t just dismiss it. Chester Bowles at one point, ambassador to India, warned that the United States had a very limited amount of time to deal with the issue if the United States wanted to be able to, essentially, win hearts and minds in Asia and Africa, as these countries were emerging from colonialism.
Just one example, in May of 1963 peaceful demonstrators marched into Birmingham, Alabama and were just pummeled with firehoses and police dogs, with high school kids rolling down the street in the power of the firehoses. Images of the brutality against demonstrators in Birmingham were blasted all over both the American media and media around the world. It became fodder for Soviet anti-U.S. propaganda, which the U.S. realized was especially effective, having an impact on allies as well as U.S. critics.
Coinciding with the events in Birmingham was the first meeting of what would become the Organization of African Unity. And they debated whether the events in Birmingham should lead to a break in U.S.-African relations, and ended up passing a critical, but less extreme, resolution. That resolution was just reaffirmed by the African Union in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. So there’s a long history of international interest, international protest, international criticism. And during the era of decolonization it had particular impacts on U.S. foreign relations.
The U.S. was concerned about how are these emerging nations going to algin themselves in the context of the Cold War? So the U.S. during this era took race discrimination seriously as something that harmed U.S. foreign relations, and believed that in order to lead the world the U.S. had to be a leader on racial equality, as well as—you know, that was the only way to show that democracy as a system of government was something that other nations might want to aspire to.
PENN: Interesting. Uzra.
ZEYA: Well, I would just pick up on Mary’s point in terms of historical context here. It’s true, the inequalities and injustices that have been laid bare by COVID-19 in the United States are deep-rooted. They’re systemic. And they’re systematic. But I think we are really at a unique flashpoint where we, in effect, have to tear down that mental Berlin Wall between domestic and foreign policy, and recognize that our credibility as an international leader really depends on our ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of our governance and, you know, to continually strive for that more perfect union, which I think has been really the story of the American journey.
In my own experience, I served for over two decades as an American diplomat. I spent nineteen of twenty-seven years in the field. And found a number of parallels in situations with respect to inequalities at home and those abroad. I served in France during a tumultuous period from 2014 to 2017, where there was a wave of terrorist attacks, many domestic in origin. But fundamental issues of deep-seated inequality and lack of integration of French citizens of African and Arab origin.
The irony is while I was there, we had, you know, another precursor to George Floyd, a series of terrible incidents of police abuse and violence, and specifically the case of Freddie Gray, where in our own work at the embassy we discovered that the unemployment rate for young African American males in Baltimore was equivalent, 40 percent, to the unemployment rate of immigrant-origin youth in the suburbs around Paris.
And for me, you know, that’s a reminder and a moment of, let’s say, recognition and humility, that when we go forward with our own prescriptions I think we have to show real sincerity and a death of recognition from the highest levels of the U.S. government in terms of how our journey is incomplete, and how far we have to go. And I think ultimately that approach will make us more effective, and maybe change some of the deep doubts there are internationally in terms of what the United States represents and how we can model our example for others, not only in words but in our deeds as well.
PENN: Great historical context from both of you.
Kwame, I’ll move on to you.
APPIAH: So just—I mean, let’s remind ourselves of what’s going on here. (Laughs.) There was a huge Black Lives Matter demonstration in Berlin Alexanderplatz. There was a huge Black Lives Matter demonstration under the Eiffel Tower. There was a huge Black Lives Matter demonstration outside the British Houses of Parliament. And these were all prompted by the murder of an American citizen, on American soil, by an American cop. And you know, the world is watching. Ghana had a—Ghana had a memorial service for George Floyd—the government of Ghana had a George Floyd memorial service. And that reaffirmation of the early criticism of the United States by the African Union means that all those fifty-odd countries, that their heads of state—their foreign ministers got together to discuss what was going on here.
And I think there is a connection between—and people have always been interested in us. I mean, we—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—shining city on the hill, but we’re definitely a city on a hill. People are watching. And foreign policy depends, among other things, about how people think about you, how they feel about you, whether they respect you, whether they honor you, whether they think that you are serious in your pronouncements about principle, and policy, and so on. And remember, we constantly are involved, rightly, in our international work as a country and through the State Department, in trying to draw attention to breaches of human rights—whether they’re Chinese and Uighurs, or Myanmar and terrible things that are going on there.
But you can’t have it both ways. (Laughs.) I mean, either this is a world in which we accept that the principles of human rights mean that everybody, every human being, every nation, has a—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—every nation to high standards, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we should shut up. And if we do, we should make it possible for us to be taken seriously. And these failures, both the kinds of failures of equality in civic life—whether it’s policing equality and so on—but also the very evident inequalities resulting from the ways in which our very unequal health care system interacts with the pandemic. These things undermine our capacity to speak for the values that I think of as American values, I’m sure most people on this call think of as American values.
So it’s completely—it’s crucial to get these things right. Now, of course, we should get them right for their own sake. It’s ridiculous that we can’t solve the problem of inequality in American policing. It’s ridiculous that we have such total failure on the part of the government to effectively regulate the pandemic as it comes here. We have, what is it, 4 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s identified COVID patients. Now, some of that is because we’ve been testing more than some people and those numbers are going to go up everywhere. But it’s—that’s the second thing I’d like to say. It’s not just our principles that we need to get right.
We need to look like a competent state. We need to look like we know what we’re doing. And I talk regularly—because I grew up in Ghana, I grew up in England, I’ve been around the world—I talk pretty much every day or communicate every day with people in many other countries. And what they’re saying is how is it possible for your country, the country that you, our brother, our uncle, have become a citizen of, could be so incompetent? We thought we could respect at least American technical competence, at least. And you failed. So I think these are crucial questions in relation to race and to the pandemic about principle and about competence. And if we look unprincipled and incompetent, that massively undermines our capacity to have an effective foreign policy.
PENN: Thank you, Kwame. So all—both with the historic context and sort of what you said about how we’re received around the world. I’m curious about how those answers come about, right? It seems like polarization is at a peak. It seems that many of our friends on the left are gasping at this realization that our friends on the right were serious when they said that the role of the federal government is not to provide something like a comprehensive national public health strategy, which of course we don’t have today. The federal government’s role is not to lead on the issues of racial inequality and justice.
So I guess my question is, coming off of, Kwame, what you said, but certainly the whole conversation, are we dealing with an inability and a failure of dealing with these challenges? Or are we experiencing a purposeful unwillingness to make changes to our system? Mary, let’s go back and start with you.
DUDZIAK: You know, Kal, with all due respect, I would say that police killings of Black people in the United States is not a polarization issue. It’s a deep structural problem of racism. And it’s been bipartisan. And so it’s a failure of leadership that—you know, it’s sort of easy to think, especially with COVID, to sort of start thinking in sort of leadership and polarization, you know, rhetorics. But with that also, especially given, you know, in Atlanta, my hometown, right now the deep impacts on Black and brown people in Atlanta and other parts of their country. And, you know, is that part of the way that there’s just simply inattention to the level of death that is happening in the country?
So but really sort of back to the Black Lives Matter movement, I think that notwithstanding the importance of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement is the defining issue of our era that will be—how we manage it is going to be of tremendous importance to the country, to not only our standing in the world but who we are as a people. And it’s a reckoning with centuries of racism that’s built in. And so I really do think that we have to sort of deal with it as a problem of racism. I keep coming back to Derrick Bell’s work, which was in some ways so depressing, when he argued in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, that racism is permanent. And on some level, we have to deal with it as a structural feature of our country. And it’s on all of us to do that.
PENN: Thank you. Uzra, same question for you. But I would also hope that you can add a little bit from your—from your decades abroad, and any insight that that might have provided as well.
ZEYA: No, I would pick up on Mary’s point, and absolutely second her view with respect to the systemic racism at the root of what we’re facing. Not a conflict, you know, between two parties or two aggrieved groups. But maybe instead of polarization, Kal, I would pick up on the world politicization.
PENN: Great point.
ZEYA: I think if you look at the—just the debate over mask use in the United States, you know, this is American exceptionalism of the worst kind. You know, we are the only developed country that I am aware of where there is a political debate, and a partisan debate, about the wearing of masks as a safety measure. If you look at the countries that have been the most effective and that were in a worse position than the United States, in Europe for example in early March, or Canada which was close to the United States at that point, you know, one of the key factors I think that’s been found in the effectiveness of their ability to crush the curve is the non-politicization of the pandemic response itself.
So I do think that that trend line in the United States has really been to our detriment and has cost lives and enormous damage to our economy as well. But if we ignore the issues—you know, the root causes of this reckoning over racial injustice, I think, you know, it’s, again—it’s a fool’s errand to think that we can simply move past this and have more of the same, because I think the degree to which this inequality has been exposed and, you know, this rupture revealed, it really demands a transformational response.
APPIAH: I do think that—I mean, there is a dimension of this that does have to do with what the political scientists call the effective polarization of the United States. We’ve become what my father would have called, in the context of Ghana, very tribal about our politics. We now—and this is—this is always a tendency in party politics. I don’t mean that it’s never happened before anywhere. It happens in lots of places. But we’ve done it to an extreme degree. And what I mean by that is exemplified in something that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about now but has to do with that t-shirt you may remember in the Washington Post, of the couple of chaps at a Trump rally. Which said: I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.
Now, what’s interesting about that is, of course, the idea that the leader of the Republican Party should be seen as identified with a strongly pro-Russian position would have surprised, I think, most people ten years ago. And the switch happened entirely because of the switch associated with the arrival of Donald Trump. In the Republican debates up until that point there were—there’s plenty of normal, as it were, Republican anti-Russian rhetoric. (Laughs.) And it just—it’s just become, as it were, the thing for the tribe to be pro-Russian because the leader is pro-Russia. Not because any arguments have changed. Not because anybody’s had a revision in their view of foreign policy. Not because of anybody’s stunning analysis. Not because President Putin has changed his behavior—far from it. It’s just—it’s just a partisan switch.
So, and that’s—unfortunately, that’s happened with masking. That is to say, it’s become a signal of a tribal identity to take a position on this, on both sides. It’s a signal of a liberal Democratic identity as well, to wear a mask as well. But I have to say that my guess is that if a Democratic political leader were to come out against masks, I think, I believe that that wouldn’t much change the behavior of most Democrats, in the way that the president’s failure to wear a mask and the associated support for that by people like Fox media has, in fact, led people to do so. This is a very dangerous and unhelpful thing.
So, now, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement we see some of the same sort of polarization. Instead of thinking rationally, sensitively, in a policy-minded way about what good it does for our country to resist, for example, the removal of all those Confederate statues that were put there in order to reinforce the message of White supremacy two generations after the Civil War, in a sense thinking about that is a question of who we want to be and what kinds of policies we wanted to have, it’s just become oh, you know, one side holds this view. So I hold that view because I’m on that side. And this is making it very difficult to have good discussions, I think, in this context, because of this effective polarization.
As evidence—for example, just to end on this thought, it is now the case that the levels at which people don’t want their children to marry people of the other party are about where they were for not wanting people to marry outside of their race when I was a child, right? So we are—we are deeply polarized. And unfortunately, one of the big indices of polarization is your attitudes on racial (preferences ?). Part of the standard signaling of the conservative position, unfortunately, has come to be that you deny or that you understate the degree to which there’s a problem with racial inequality in the United States.
Again, this is a topic on which, it seems to me, it would be better for us to have rational, data-based, sensible discussions—discussion in which the data, of course, include the experience of African Americans, which has often been ignored. You know, 50 percent of African Americans report having had a bad interaction with police. The number for White Americans is 3 percent. That’s a fact too, right? But if you ignore the opinions of Black people, you won’t get to that fact. But I think—so this is maybe—the sort of tribalization of our politics, the extreme politization, is making it very difficult for us to have sensible conversations.
DUDZIAK: Could I jump in?
PENN: Of course, Mary.
DUDZIAK: On the issue of—I think historians for decades may well argue over the Trump exceptionalism question. But I just sort of wanted to suggest that if you look at, for example, the—essentially the red-baiting of Max Cleland, a U.S. veteran who was senator from Georgia, who was a multiple amputee from his service in the war in Vietnam. And you know, and then was essentially red-baited out of office with a Republican running against him, morphing from a photo of him to a photo of Osama bin Laden. So this was during the Bush administration, in the context of the quote/unquote—the second Bush administration—context of the quote/unquote “War on Terror.” It was the 2002 election.
So this is just one example of so many of toxic politics that proceed the Trump era. And so do we have a problem with broken politics? Absolutely. The problem is deeper and longer-running than the presidency of Donald Trump, not that he hasn’t had an impact. So I think we do need to think about how our democracy is working. And I think actually the fix may be, you know, looking at the electoral college, and sort of structurally looking at politics, and the fix may be voting rights, right? And so the fix may not be how do we fix our parties, but how do we actually ensure that people can vote? (Laughs.)
Again, coming from Georgia, I have to tell you, it’s hard for everybody to vote. It’s especially hard for people of color to vote. So I think that would be the kind of fix that I would be looking for, because toxic politics, run it back to Joe McCarthy, right, in the ’50s. We’ve been dealing with toxic politicians for a long time.
PENN: Thanks. Mary, you reminded me of one of my tasks in 2008 during the Democratic primary in North Carolina was trying to convince a local elections board that they actually should not remove voting booths from college campuses and historically Black neighborhoods. So this is an issue that—I lost that battle, by the way. But, you know, it’s an issue that I think definitely needs a second, and third, and fourth look.
And it also leads to the next question I had, which was: For all of you, what sorts of policy changes need to happen? And how practical are the policy changes that you think need to happen?
Uzra, we can start with you.
ZEYA: Sure. No, I mean, I think—I think in terms of breaking down the barriers between domestic and foreign policy, I think on our domestic policy, you know, we have to get to the root causes of the unrest, of this moment of reckoning that’s consuming our nation. You know, when you look at statistic and all of the inequalities that Kwame and Mary pointed out—you know, among persons of color under the age of sixty-five, the death toll is doubt that of White Americans due to COVID-19. But I think we need to really look to an integrated approach domestically where, you know, I think there are good-faith efforts underway with respect to law enforcement, criminal justice. But you have to look also at the sweeping effects of four hundred years of systemic racism that have left African American and persons of color behind.
If you look at income levels, housing policy, health policy, all of that. The irony for me is that, you know, with respect to our foreign policy and foreign assistance approaches, I’ve seen more emphasis on integrated approaches that I see domestically, where I think our federal system can often just leave these decisions to fall between the cracks, or to the purview of individual states of constituencies where you might have vastly different approaches to the role of government itself to issues, fundamental rights, like labor rights, housing rights, health insurance as a fundamental right. So I think we need to see greater integration on the domestic policy side. I think we also have to confront the polarization that Kwame and Mary alluded to through dialogue, through common cause, and by now allowing actors to magnify those differences into a perpetual us versus them approach.
With respect to foreign policy, I mean, I’ll just make two very quick points. One, I think we need a national security workforce. We need a State Department, a diplomatic corps that represents America at all levels. And we are not there on that side. I’ll just remind you, we have a senior foreign service—this is where all of the senior ambassadors, State Department officials are drawn, that is 90 percent White in 2020. It is more White now than it was in 2002. And at this very moment, we have three African American career ambassadors serving overseas and zero African American women ambassadors serving us abroad. And that is not the way to represent an America that is going to lead and that is truly advancing all of its citizens.
PENN: Kwame, I’ll kick it over to you.
APPIAH: Well, I’m—I mean, I think—of course, what Uzra just said is an enormously important policy question of the sort that the Council ought to pay attention to, which is how to get a diplomatic corps that looks and feels like America. And this is—of course, you know, people immediately—when you say that sort of thing people immediately say, well, shouldn’t we just pick the most competent people and so on. I want to say two things about that.
One is that on social questions and on political questions while there isn’t a lockstep relationship between identity and views, there is—people have different stakes. People of different social identities have different stakes in questions. And they have different experiences. You don’t get—if you’re a sort of normal-looking White person in the United States you don’t get followed around in malls by security guards in the way that you do if you’re Black. And that’s just a difference in experience. And that’s true, you know, if you’re walking around the mall in a Brooks Brothers suit with a nice tie and if you’re walking around in sneakers and shorts.
So first of all, a group of people thinking about foreign policy needs to reflect the experiences of Americans. And like it or not, that means it needs to be diverse in racial experience and, of course, it needs to have men and women. It needs to have straight people and gay people, because these issues affect people’s everyday experiences, and therefore they bring different things into the conversation because of it. As I say, not in lockstep. It’s not a deterministic thing. But as a general matter, as a statistical matter, if you have a group of people that is highly unrepresentative of a country, it won’t include people who have a full range of the country’s experiences. And so that’s one thing.
The other thing is that diplomats represent. And representation is symbolic. And I you send a bunch of White folk into Ghana to speak for the United States, Ghana—a country which has a long history of relations with the African American community, in particularly W.E.B. Du Bois, arguably the greatest African American intellectual, ended his life as a Ghanaian citizen, and many other people went to Ghana from the United States, starting after independence as well, from African American. And last year the government of Ghana had a year of return, inviting African Americans who wanted to come and spend time in Ghana to come.
So if you send a bunch of White folk to that country to represent this country, first of all, Ghanaians are not stupid. They know that they are not being sent a group of people that represents the United States. But also you send a message to them, and a reminder of the inequalities of the country that they are representing. So there are many reasons, I think, why we should be attentive to what our diplomatic corps—what its experience is. Which means who they are and what they look like, what they represent. They are representing us.
So I think that’s an area where particularly the Council—and in our pre-conversation I think both Mary and Uzra pointed out correctly—so I’m going to steal their point—(laughs)—this is something that the Council can do something about. Because we can focus on the pipeline. We can focus on bringing in a wider range of people into the world of the foreign policy discussion and experience and expertise, so that we have a more American-looking group of people to draw on.
PENN: Thank you. Mary, did you want to jump in before—yeah.
DUDZIAK: So just—yeah, just very—yeah, just very briefly. And I agree with my colleagues about the importance of diversifying the diplomatic corps. During the Cold War, during the 1960s, the issue that finally kind of eclipsed race in America as the most important issue that presidents had to worry about in terms of the U.S. image around the world—what eclipsed it was the war in Vietnam. And that’s kind of a reminder that if we want to think about race in U.S. foreign policy, ultimately we have to cast our net much more broadly.
The Black Lives Matter movement is tremendously important. But the experience of race in U.S. foreign policy is especially experienced on the ground when, you know, for decades the folks who have been most burdened by ongoing U.S. armed conflict have been peoples of colors in other countries—civilians who are in the war zones of American ongoing wars. So on some level if we want to really deal broadly with the issue of race in U.S. foreign policy, part of the discussion has to be about American war.
PENN: Thank you.
APPIAH: Can I just say—just to remind us that when W.E.B. Du Bois said that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, he was talking both about Jim Crow and about racist colonial policy. He was talking about the fact that, unfortunately, racism is not just a feature of our domestic behavior. There is a racial element in the indifference with which we treat problems of people in other parts of the world depending on basically what they look like. And so I think it’s really important to be clear that taking race seriously isn’t just a matter of getting race right at home. As Mary says, it’s a matter of making sure that we are not racially insensitive or White supremacist in our foreign policy. And it’s a reasonable accusation that we sometimes have been.
PENN: I want to make sure that our audience—our members, excuse me—can get some questions in, because I think you’ve all made some very, very astute points. So at this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this virtual meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue. So, Laura.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Shaarik Zafar.
Q: Hey, everybody. Shaarik. Kal, great to see you, and some of my former colleagues.
This is—this is probably the best CFR session I’ve attended in a long time. Professor Dudziak, I bought your book, Cold War Civil Rights back when I was serving as a special counsel for Muslim backlash. I think it needed to be required reading. People should just buy it on Amazon right now.
The question I’ve got is really for Uzra, my former colleague—who, by the way, is an amazing foreign service officer. One of the best that I had the privilege of working with when I at State Department. And you know, we talk about American exceptionalism. And, you know, one aspect that I think is truly exceptional is our Civil Rights movement. You know, we’ve had the Civil Rights movement. Europe has not, in my view. We still have amazing Civil Rights leaders who are doing incredible work on the ground, you know, engaging at the grassroots, but also in so-called corridors of power.
So the question, Uzra, is for you. Like, what inspiration are European and other civil society organizations taking from U.S. civil rights leaders, A? And, B, should the Council—should we actually highlight groups like Black Lives Matter in having these conversations, especially because the other side—and I’m not just talking about the political other side, I’m talking about violent, far-right, racist movements—are increasingly becoming connected transatlantically? So what can we do? You know, how we can encourage a sharing of tactics, ideas, not to—because we have everything figured out in the United States, but we need to have that conversation. So that’s my question. And thanks, Kal, for hosting this. This is terrific.
PENN: Thanks, Shaarik. Great question. Uzra.
ZEYA: Thanks, Shaarik. It’s wonderful to hear your voice. And I think you did such an amazing job in your role as the special representative for Muslim communities all over the world in really bringing forth a very different and a critically important manifestation of American leadership. Not American governmental leadership, but American grassroots civil society leadership. So I witnessed that firsthand with the work that Shaarik did in terms of outreach to French youth of diverse backgrounds where, you’re absolutely right, there has not been the equivalent, or scope, or scale of the American citizen-led Civil Rights movement.
And I think there was a really smart course correction where under previous administrations there was a tendency to try to connect the American Muslim community, as diverse and incredibly wide-ranging as it is, with Muslim communities abroad, without recognizing the path to racial—and the path from racial injustice towards justice, where when you look at, you know, what inspires people all over the world about America, it is the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, of Malcom X, of the NAACP, of the idea of ordinary people challenging the most powerful government in the world and holding it to account, through the rule of law, through peaceful protest.
So I think you’ve hit on an enormously important point to recognize BLM, Black Lives Matter, as an incredibly influential and positive influence for American values, and what we strive to achieve in terms of a more perfect union. I think it’s not a view that’s, let’s say, widely accepted or recognized. But we need to recognize that the young people in this movement, they are rejecting American values I think in a way that, you know, any government outlet really could not at this precise moment. And I think we could do more to try to connect them with likeminded folks overseas and recognize the power of their example.
PENN: Thank you, Uzra. Laura, I think we’re—oh, I’m sorry, go ahead, Kwame.
APPIAH: I just want to say one thing. There’s one part of the question that’s very important, I think, is that on the one hand we have a system of something like racial caste in this country, and we need to get rid of it. On the other hand, we have long traditions of resisting that, going back to—going back to abolitionism. And we have long traditions of wide consensus among many people, probably—certainly more than a majority of White people today, that we have a problem.
That’s not clear to many Europeans. It is not clear to them. I mean, it’s clear that we have a problem. But it isn’t clear to them that they have these problems. I think there’s much less clear acceptance of problems of racial inequality in Europe. And of course, they’re different because theirs have a lot more to do with empire than they have to do with slavery. But nevertheless, I think—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—if we begin to get our act properly together we can be very helpful to our friends and allies, especially in Europe, I think, in dealing with these questions.
And one other places where we might be able to be helpful if we got some of this better, right, is with assisting problems of casteism in India. But we can’t really talk to them about that right now, because as Ambedkar said to W.E.B. Du Bois, the way you treat your—the way you Black people are treated in your country is like the way we treat our untouchables. So and as long as that’s true, the Indians will perfectly reasonably say to us: Who are you to talk?
ZEYA: I think that’s a great point, Kwame. And, you know, if you look at the sort of—the impact of civil society, of human rights leaders all over the world, I mean, Mahatma Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King and, you know, his influence around the world, I think there is a virtuous circle that, if anything, CFR and many on this call should be looking, again, to the civil society, to the young leaders in our own country, to carry that forward.
PENN: Thank you. And thanks, Shaarik. Great to see you.
Laura, I think we’re ready for the next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Q: Thank you. Can you hear me? I mean, hi, Uzra. How are you?
ZEYA: Hi, Linda. Wonderful to hear you.
Q: You too. Let me start by thanking you all for starting this conversation.
And I did use the word “starting” purposely, because I think it’s the start of a conversation and there are many more that I think CFR can host on this issue. The George Floyd killing really opened up some serious wounds that were in the United States. And they’d been crusted over and scarred over for many years. And as you started to peel back what George Floyd opened up you found years, decades, centuries of pain that the African American community has suffered in this country. And they weren’t talked about. We had a Civil Rights movement, but the pain was not ever really discussed in terms of the history of what has happened in this community since the beginning of slavery and through the end of slavery, and Jim Crow.
So I do think that more conversations will be needed to understand and to address some of the pain that has occurred in this—in our community, and to look at ways of addressing those in the future. And I think we’re off to a good start, but we’ve been off to a good start many times before. And it ended, and we’re here where we are today. So this time I think, with Black Lives movement, with the number of young people in the streets, the diversity of the people in the streets, I think it’s sending a very, very strong message. And I started out being very—feeling very hopeless at the start of this, but now feeling hopeful as we move forward.
And I just will mention one other point. Kwame, you mentioned—you talked about Jim Crow and the anti-colonial movements, and how these things were connected. And I was in a conversation earlier today where I did raise that subject because during the Civil Rights movement there was a very, very close connection to what was happening in Africa in terms of colonialism and, more broadly, looking at issues of racism globally.
And I think this is an important moment as well to bring those communities of consciousness together. I think it’s really important that we hear African voices in this discussion, that African Americans hear from African leaders. And it’s an issue that I push—I asked a question recently to one African leader who said, “all lives matter.” And I kind of typed in quickly, wrong answer. Because all lives have always mattered. African American lives have never mattered. And it’s important that we say that, and we hear it from Africa.
So hearing you talk about Ghana and what the president of Ghana did was very much appreciated, and it brought tremendous, I think, respect for how Ghana has treated this, compared to some other countries in Africa. But we have a long way to go. So, Kal, if you want to host another one of these—(laughter)—many of us will be your audience on the line.
PENN: I would be happy to. Thank you, Linda, for your—for your comments. That was—I think resonated with quite a few of us, I’m sure.
Laura, I guess we can move to the next question or comment.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Daniel Martin.
Q: Yes. Thank you.
My question is basically about the—making our Foreign Service look more like the country. I’m sure that you’re not recommending that all ambassadors to African countries be Black, but if that were the case, or to the extent that that is the case, would that not be somewhat patronizing? How would—if I’m the president of the Central African Republic, and all I see is—when I go to the African Union meetings—is other people who tell me that the ambassadors to their country are also Black, what sort of message does that send, if any?
DUDZIAK: Could I weigh in here? How about having Black ambassadors to Russia, to China, to Korea, to everywhere around the world? I don’t think there’s an effort—I don’t think anybody’s talking about matching race with the predominant race of other countries, but instead having a nondiscriminatory and fully representative of the United States diplomatic corps. It’s really harmed U.S. foreign relations in earlier years, in the years I study historically, to have a White diplomatic corps. They didn’t get the on the ground concerns about race in America. It took a while for that to really resonate, for them to understand it, and understand why peoples in other countries thought that racism against African Americans at home might be an indication of how the United States would treat people like them.
So there’s been a history of racism and exclusion in the diplomatic corps. It’s not as bad as it was during the Cold War era. There’s a lot more diversity. I see it in the State Department. But there’s a long way to go. And it would aid the United States to have a diplomatic corps that is broadly representative of the American people. So I think that’s the issue, not having a match with particular populations around the world.
ZEYA: Right. And I would second Mary’s point. I don’t think any of us suggested that there should be only African American ambassadors in Africa or limiting it to that point. But the fact is I served for over twenty-five years as a foreign service officer. I did see a positive evolution, but it has absolutely fallen short. And there is a crisis with respect to the plummeting numbers for African Americans in the senior Foreign Service. It has dropped by two-third over the last ten years, and it’s down to 3 percent.
So I think that we have to recognize this issue and recognize this problem, and accept that well-intentioned measures have fallen short, and a new approach is needed. And there is an absolute breadth of research to show that organizations are more innovative, more impactful across the board, regardless of sector, when they have diverse perspectives and diverse teams at the table.
Q: Without a doubt, I’m sure that’s true.
PENN: Thank you so much, Daniel.
Laura, we can go to the next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Jenna Ben-Yehuda.
Q: Hi, everybody. Thanks so much for this important conversation. And great to hear all of the various comments, especially from Uzra, who’s an incredible legacy working on these issues, and especially from Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is a legend in so many respects.
I lead a national membership organization called the Truman National Security Project. We’re a nationwide network of next-generation national security leaders. And we have made promulgating an antiracist agenda a central feature of the work that we do. It is something that I would like to challenge to others who might be listening to really investigate. We talk about the importance of diversity as a national security matter, which it certainly is. But I think this is a moment where we really need to see action, and not just words. So I would—I would issue that challenge to my colleagues and would encourage folks to look at the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security set of commitments on that matter.
My question is, we will hopefully have before us the opportunity to reimagine what our foreign affairs agenda looks like in a few short months. There is a lot of clawing back that will need to be done. But perhaps, if I may, Uzra, a niche State Department question on what you would consider some of the early big muscle movements that a Biden administration could undertake to advance civil society voices and a broader conversation about racism as a national security matter, while also bringing diverse populations into the ranks of the department. Thank you.
ZEYA: Thank you. Thank you, Jenna. And I have to commend you for the incredible work of the Truman National Security Project in helping create this pipeline, and for diverse, and dynamic, and young leadership in our national security community. So hats off to you for that.
I think in terms of early steps that could be taken, I totally agree with you that we’ve got to be bold and really move beyond rhetoric. And I think with that comes the recognition that systems in place that were designed in the era of one-career couples—you know, when the Foreign Service was pale, male, and Yale, much more so than today—really hold much less relevance and are holding us back in terms of creating that workforce and leadership that represents America.
So three points I would make is looking at the pipelines for entry into the Foreign Service, and looking to open them at all levels, which I realize is in itself not without controversy for a Foreign Service that is, you know, based on a written examination, an oral examination for entry. But the fact is, there are other paths for entry under the Foreign Service act, including mid-level entry, including the possibility of appointment, all the way up to the senior level, where I think looking at what the needs are for the department at this incredibly challenging moment of global disruption, but also looking at the workforce that we want, and the talent that’s out there, it is possible to achieve it in a much more rapid timeframe. Telling your most dynamic and ambitious young people to wait thirty years—that’s 2050, people, from now—to get to a position of responsibility, I don’t think is necessarily the best way.
The two other elements I think are accompaniment along the way, where there has been an undocumented loss of persons of color, not only from the Pickering and Rangel programs, but from other points of entry that have resulted in this dwindling number we see of African representation at the most senior level. And I think the department needs to move from voluntary efforts, and relying on networks like yours, and really invest in supporting, and accompanying, and really guiding its recruits to success and greater responsibility.
And the final point is accountability. Accountability in terms of the transparency of data and information, to know what is the percentage of American ambassadors abroad who are African Americans? It shouldn’t be people like me and reporters for foreign policy who are doing that homework on their free time. With that also comes real zero tolerance for acts of bias and harassment, where, Jenna, again, you have done phenomenal work on that issue, and put forth some very compelling recommendations that I think could be taken onboard very quickly.
PENN: Thank you, Uzra, and Jenna.
Laura, I think we have time for one more question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Farah Pandith.
Q: Good afternoon. It’s great to see you, Uzra. Wonderful to see you, Kal. And thank you all for a wonderful conversation today.
I’d like to pick up on a point that Uzra made about the difference between domestic and international. I would agree completely that what happens in America has great implications for what happens overseas. And so as we think about our foreign policy we can’t define it to the State Department, or another sector of the interagency. And so I’m going to throw my question to Kal, actually. Having done your work at the White House, and understanding how we set up this system to engage with different diverse groups across America, as we think about a next administration how do we think about ourselves differently in how we do that? How do we—do we set it up the same way we have in other administrations? Or do we have a forward-leaning posture in a new way? Thank you.
PENN: Thanks, Farah.
So, look, I worked primarily on youth outreach for President Obama. And I can say that my one big frustration was—on the plus side the office I worked for, Office of Public Engagement, traditionally the Office of Public Liaison had expanded under the administration, under the promise that every American proverbially should have a seat at the table. But it wasn’t funded. It wasn’t a funded office. And my counterparts—for example, at the time Ronan Farrow was Secretary Clinton’s youth outreach person at the State Department. He not only had a budget, but he had a staff. So he was physically able to go all around the world doing outreach on behalf of the administration and the American people, whereas I was sort of in the EEOB with six other people in a—in a crowded office.
Now, I think we got a lot of stuff done, and I know that all of the folks who were in the executive branch were dealing with the same sorts of challenges and resources. But I would say, you know, the one thing that I would hope is that if there was some way, particularly now for 2020, as you’ve all mentioned on this panel and the unique challenges that we face in sort of looking at the lack of diversity and lack of kind of forward thinking, if there were a way to both increase budget but also increase scope of outreach by talking to each other within different departments, and synergizing that outreach, I think we would get a lot more done. There are certainly challenges, being in a country so big and so diverse. But I think with a minimal effort, you know, that conversation could be shifted just a bit.
Laura, I know we have a couple minute left. Should we try for one more question?
STAFF: Sure. We’ll take the next question from Maryum Saifee. Maryum, please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: Got it. Can you hear me?
PENN: We can. Go ahead, Maryum.
Q: Great. So I’m Maryum Saifee. I’m with the State Department. And I’m on a leave without pay.
But I just wanted to share an anecdote that’s very visual to this conversation. My first tour was in Cairo. I as the deputy cultural attaché. And I remember we used to promote this iconic photo of Louis Armstrong playing jazz in front of the pyramids, as a jazz ambassador. And there was sort of this cognitive dissonance of him being celebrated publicly abroad, but then dealing with Jim Crow at home. And I sort of really appreciate this panel for that—kind of connecting these dots that normally aren’t connected.
My question, if there’s time, I guess there’s a couple minutes, is beyond the pipeline what about retention? How can we build an antiracist organizational culture within the State Department, so people like me, as a woman of color, actually want to stay?
PENN: Great question. Who wants to jump in?
ZEYA: I mean, I’m happy to just say quickly, Maryum, I think you’re absolutely right on that point. And I think that is—you know, that’s where the accompaniment and the accountability really has to come into play, in a way that it’s not left to employees, to voluntary groups, or affinity groups and others to do that task. It’s really something that the leadership invests in, funds, and holds everyone to account. You know, I’ve heard for so long, you know, lip service about zero tolerance for bias or harassment.
But the fact is, it’s a very unclear picture at the department when complaints are made what occurs and when separation becomes a question, as opposed to people just moving from one incident or assignment to the next. I think that kind of accountability is critical for whoever—whomever ends up as the next secretary of state. And to recognize—Kal, you made the point at the outset that personnel is policy. This is not an issue to hand off to only the director-general of the Foreign Service to deal with. It’s got to be something that the leadership at the very top establishes as a strategic priority.
PENN: I happily stole “personnel is policy” from one of you during our pre-call, and I can’t remember exactly who.
But Uzra, Mary, and Kwame, thank you so much. And thanks to all of the members for joining today’s virtual meeting. Thank you, again, to our speakers. Please note that the audio and transcript of today’s call will be posted on the CFR website. Hope everybody stays safe and has a great rest of the week. Thank you.