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George Floyd and the End of American Hegemony

Black Lives Matters protesters in London holding signs and marching outside American Embassy wearing masks during lockdown coronavirus pandemic keeping 2 meters social distance, May 31, 2020. (Shutterstock royalty-free stock photo ID: 1746307151).

An “I can’t breathe” sign in London’s Trafalgar Square. The hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter in Indonesia. Monuments pulled from their pedestals in Bristol and Antwerp.  Fists in the air in Africa and Latin America. In the months since George Floyd’s murder, the world has exploded in anger and grief. Protestors across the globe have expressed solidarity with black victims of police brutality in the United States. They have chanted the names of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and other African Americans killed by the U.S. police or by civilian vigilantes. World leaders have issued statements of condemnation, and U.S. consulates are festooned with angry placards. From Adelaide to Yerevan to Lagos to Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of cities, towns, and villages have become sites of protest.

These protesters draw connections between the plight of African Americans and systemic racism within their own nations. Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at a higher rate than African Americans, and over 400 have died in police custody since 1990. Papuans, a racialized minority, have been targeted by Indonesian security forces. In India, Bollywood actors have been called out for promoting skin-lightening treatments. In France, protesters list the names of black men who have died in police custody. Especially in the global South, the murder of George Floyd has resonated with local experiences of anti-black racism, disempowerment, and brutality.[1]

Transnational expressions of racial solidarity are not new. Today it is about policing, but in the last century, it was segregation and lynching that compelled observers around the world—and especially in Europe—to ask whether the United States was living up to its founding principles. In the early twentieth century, for example, European writers expressed dismay over the all-too-frequent murder of blacks in the South and the proliferation of Jim Crow segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. After their defeat in World War I, Germans marveled at how a country that claimed to have fought for democracy was murdering its own citizens.[2] They were particularly incensed during the Red Summer of 1919, when dozens of American cities were wracked with white-on-black violence, and during the 1921 massacre of African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[3] European attention to U.S. racial injustice peaked in the early 1930s with the case of the nine Scottsboro Boys, who had been framed, nearly lynched, and imprisoned for allegedly raping a white woman in Alabama. Ada Wright, the mother of two of the defendants, traveled across Europe to publicize the plight of her sons; her tour coincided with street protests and letter writing campaigns.[4] The Committee for Deliverance of Victims of Scottsboro, based in Berlin, sent a telegram of protest to Alabama Governor Benjamin Meek Miller that called for the release of the accused men “in the name of humanity and justice.” The appeal was signed by Albert Einstein, novelists Thomas Mann and Leon Feuchtwanger, artist Käthe Kollwitz, and journalists Alfons Goldschmidt and Carl von Ossietzksy. Several of these signatories would soon be exiled or murdered by the Nazis.[5]

This global attention to American race relations intensified in the years after World War II, as the United States consolidated its global power. European consulates in the United States sent reports home about both the black freedom movement and white backlash. They tracked closely many of the most tumultuous events of the civil rights years, including school desegregation efforts, the Watts riots in 1965, and the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Writing about the unrest that followed King’s death, West German ambassador to the United States Karl Heinrich Knappstein sent a cable to his foreign office in which he echoed the words of the New York Times: “The [U.S.] nation is horrified by the murder of Martin Luther King, but not by the living conditions of its own people.”[6]

Close attention to U.S. race relations also shaped decolonization struggles in the global South. Throughout Africa and Asia, anti-colonial struggles drew from the U.S. civil rights movement, while black activists in the United States drew connections between their own oppression and struggles for independence from colonial rule in places like Ghana and Kenya. These post-colonial struggles were closely bound up with the superpower contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, but a transnational fascination with U.S. race relations outlived the Cold War. During the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and Hurricane Katrina (2005), citizens throughout the world decried the unfinished work of racial equality in the United States. The global response to the murder of George Floyd in recent weeks is part of this longer transnational history.

But there is also a big difference. The twentieth century witnessed the rise of the United States as a hegemonic power. In these earlier historical moments, outside observers were calling on the United States to practice what it preached and to live up to the ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights that it had ostensibly fought for during two world wars. The ongoing mistreatment of African Americans undercut claims of American exceptionalism. African American writers saw the contradiction early on. In the 1930s, they bristled at American expressions of outrage over rising anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany. The United States should “clean up its own back yard,” wrote a columnist in the Chicago Defender.[7] “Two wrongs can’t make a right,” asserted Howard University sociologist Kelly Miller. And “Americans ought to put our own house in order before assuming the burdens of the whole world,” insisted journalist Enoch P. Waters Jr.[8] During World War II the Pittsburgh Courier’s “Double V Campaign”—which called for victory abroad and at home (in the form of increased rights for African Americans)—reflected this frustration over U.S. priorities.[9]

Yet such expressions of outrage contained a powerful undercurrent of hope that the United States could actualize its most noble aspirations. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the United States, whatever its misdeeds (and they were considerable), came to embody the aspirations of many people around the globe—as a land of immigrants, as the capital of modern mass and popular cultures, and as the site of one of the most dynamic civil societies in the world. Much of what gave this society its energy was African American culture itself, whether embodied in music and literature or in incisive analyses of equality and freedom that were born of oppression. Observers from abroad took aim at U.S. race relations, but as they did so, they still invested the United States with the capacity to regenerate itself.

Today’s racial crisis is different because it is occurring as U.S. hegemony unravels. Philosopher Cornel West recently told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the current protests constitute proof that the American social experiment has failed. This claim is open to debate, but there is no question that as a global power, the United States is in decline. The last twenty years have seen America’s longest war in Afghanistan, the disaster of the Iraqi invasion and occupation, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the failure of the United States to meaningfully address the escalating threat of climate change. The Trump Administration has withdrawn the United States from global treaties and institutions and has turned its back on its allies, while sowing racial and civil discord at home. Most recently, the government’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, shot through with anti-science harangues and conspiracy theories, has resulted in the United States having the highest number of COVID deaths in the world. It has also rendered communities of color vulnerable to disease and premature death.[10]

The past months reflect both the profound crisis of the U.S. social experiment and the ongoing vibrancy of its civil society. A society that militarizes, empowers, and protects the police at the expense of other public goods—from education to housing to healthcare—cannot provide moral leadership to the rest of the world. But the vitality of black protest culture continues to inspire people abroad, much as it always has, as does the presence of so many white protestors in the streets. At this moment when U.S. power is at its nadir, these images of cross-racial activism reverberate around a troubled world and provide hope that, perhaps, the United States still has a chance to repair itself.

Jonathan Wiesen is Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the author of West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945–1955(Chapel Hill, 2001), which won a book prize from the Hagley Museum and Library and the Business History Conference. He is also coeditor of Selling Modernity: Advertising in Twentieth Century Germany (Durham, 2007) and author of Creating the Nazi Marketplace: Commerce and Consumption in the Third Reich (Cambridge, Eng. 2011). His work has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Central European History, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Journal of Contemporary History, and the German Studies Review. He is currently writing a book on U.S. anti-black racism in the German imagination from 1918–1968 and is the author of “American Lynching in the Nazi Imagination: Race and Extra-Legal Violence in 1930s Germany,” German History, 36 (February 2018), 38–59, which won the 2020 Hans Rosenberg article prize.


[1] Ali MC, “Thousands Protest Indigenous Australians’ Death in Police Custody,” Al Jazeera, June 16, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/thousands-protest-indigenous-australians-death-police-custody-200606133640874.html; Krithika Varagur, “Black Lives Matter in Indonesia Too,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/16/black-lives-matter-papua-indonesia/; Mélissa Godin, “Bollywood Stars Are Speaking Out about Racism in the U.S. But They’re Getting Backlash for Endorsing Skin Whitening Creams,” Time, June 9, 2020, https://time.com/5849961/bollywood-racism-skin-whitening/; “Family of Black Frenchman Who Died in Police Custody Call [sic] for Protests,” France 24, Sept. 6, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200609-family-of-black-frenchman-who-died-in-police-custody-call-for-protests.

[2] See Eduard Meyer, Die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika: Geschichte, Kultur, Verfassung und Politik (Frankfurt, 1920), vii.

[3] “Die Negerfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten,” Frankfurter Zeitung, June 29, 1921.

[4] Susan D. Pennybacker, From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain (Princeton, 2009), 25–27.

[5] Committee for Deliverance of the Victims of Scottsboro (Berlin, Germany), “Telegram from the Committee for the Deliverance of the Victims of Scottsboro in Berlin, Germany, to Governeur [SIC] Miller in Montgomery, Alabama,” Scottsboro Boys Trials, July 4, 1931, in Justice Done: Letters from the Scottsboro Boys Trials, University of Alabama Libraries, https://scottsboroboysletters.as.ua.edu/items/show/587.

[6] Karl Heinrich Knappstein to the West German Foreign Office in Bonn, April 8,1968, Record group B32, file 629, PAAA (Political Archive of the German Foreign Office, Berlin, Germany).

[7] “Correct Evils Here,” Chicago Defender, Dec. 3, 1938, p. 16.

[8] Kelly Miller, “Two Wrongs Can’t Make a Right,” Atlanta Daily World, Dec. 4, 1938, p. 4; Enoch P. Waters Jr., “The Star of David and the Badge of Ham,” Chicago Defender, Oct. 4, 1941, p. 14.

[9] For an introduction see Patrick S. Washburn, “The Pittsburgh Courier’s Double V Campaign in 1942,” American Journalism, 3 (no. 2, 1986), 73–86.

[10] “Morality Analyses,” Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality; “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (updated July 24, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html.

 

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