- Secretary of State Antony told American diplomats to "acknowledge our imperfections" when it comes to America's racial injustice.
- But our foreign policy should go further and actively work to advocate for racial justice around the world.
- Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told American diplomats that when conversations about human rights turn to difficult discussions about America's history of racial justice (or lack thereof) they should, "acknowledge our imperfections."
It's a good step that helps to foster a more honest discussion about the way forward for equality. But, the United States and our officials abroad can and have to go much farther.
Working in embassies overseas, diplomats like myself would often use the struggle for civil rights as an example of how countries could embrace both past and present problems. Dr. Martin Luther King was held up at our programs as an example to follow for those fighting for their own freedoms. Unfortunately, the message projected too often focused on patting the United States on the back for our purported progress on racial equality, rather than having a tougher conversation about the many structural injustices that are still stubbornly embedded in our society.
The murder of George Floyd and the significant protests that followed forced Americans to finally confront the enormous work that remains. The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed hard and helped propel change, even beyond America's borders. From London to Mexico City, marginalized minority groups took up the same banner. They may have been far from Minneapolis, but the unjustified killing of a human being at the hands of a police officer clearly spoke to their own struggle for equality. Whether it was the fight for aboriginal rights in Australia or immigrant rights in France, this tragedy transcended borders.
It's now time that the US government makes Black Lives Matter an explicit and central part of our foreign policy. Hanging flags outside of our embassies is a nice gesture, kind of like the Martin Luther King talks we have done for years. But it falls far short of what is called for in these transformative times. Our diplomats ought to do more than acknowledge, they should act.
Bringing BLM worldwide
America taking aggressive steps to address discrimination around the globe would send a powerful message. The first step in this process should be to address the issue more often, not just during important anniversaries. By my count, the term "racial justice" comes up only 82 times in the State Department records. Most were in the last year.
Equality also needs equal time. The Department ought to regularly raise the topic during important meetings, integrate it into our work in other areas, including climate change, development, and even peace talks. The State Department should also organize an annual international conference that brings together both government and non-government leaders to discuss the issue of racial equality. Increasing the frequency and the prominence given to the subject would force foreign officials to come prepared to discuss what progress they are making in their own countries, which could in turn pressure them into making actual changes.
And it doesn't stop on the governmental level, some of the most significant steps taken in the United States on diversity and inclusion in the last year came from the private sector. This has not always been replicated by companies overseas. The American government can use our private sector's experiences to encourage and enable businesses across the planet to engage in expanding opportunities for minority groups.
There also has to be some serious penalties put in place for countries that fail to live up to the standard of racial justice. When I was a junior diplomat working on visa approvals there were some actions the law considers so serious as to constitute a permanent ineligibility for entry to the United States. These include obvious crimes like drug offenses and murder, but also things like corruption and tax evasion. Public racist statements or actions should absolutely be added to that list.
We can send a clear message that those who discriminate are not welcome. These visa bans have bite, as they often impact the richest and most powerful people in the country. The criteria should include anyone who provides support for systems or policies that deny equal treatment to all people. Importantly, this would not just cover government officials, but those who run schools, businesses, or other organizations that withhold opportunities to certain groups.
The United States needs to do more than show support for global racial justice, it must act. China, Russia, and other adversaries may see the racial reckoning across the country as an opportunity to further weaken our international influence. But it also affords us the chance to lead.
America can become a champion for the rights of those forced to still endure racial inequality and injustice. That is a powerful mantle and message to carry forward. In many ways it is exactly what is needed to begin the long work of repairing the damage done to our moral standing. Except this time, we might try to be a bit more humble and hone in on really making an impact.