A Burmese friend was astonished the other day when I told him that a Negro had just been appointed to a professorship in my university back home. We were discussing the "Negro problem" in America, and it turned out that a number of facts and viewpoints that I take for granted are surprising news in Burma. [Quoted in Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 47]
Dudziak's book focuses on how America's hideous treatment of Black Americans during the Cold War became a major strategic liability in our diplomatic outreach programs (much of which touted the American model as one of liberty, democracy, and equality). Consequently, she argues, much of the institutional push by the U.S. government in favor of civil rights can be traced by a desire to diffuse this brewing threat to America's moral supremacy. And the US expended significant effort and resources showcasing Black contributions to American society, most notably in the state-sponsored goodwill tours around the globe by African-American jazz musicians (a practice explored in Penny M. Von Eschen's fantastically named Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004)).
Keep the perception of Mr. Jochem's Burmese friend in mind while reading this Slate article on how foreigners suggest America can improve its global image:
Several readers emphasize that many foreigners, even those with high levels of education, have no concept of American life. They don't know that most Americans are religious people. They don't know that most of us aren't wildly rich. They're skeptical of reports that many black people live here—or dismiss them as not "real Americans."
And so the most prominent suggestion on how to improve America's face in the world—a suggestion made by well over half of those who wrote me—is to send the world more American faces and to bring more of the world's faces into America.
In other words, these readers say, there should be a vast expansion in the Peace Corps, in Fulbright fellowships, and, above all, in student-exchange programs.
An American exchange student in Jordan writes of the foreigners he's met: "Once they see Americans—blacks, Jews, Asians, and 'real' Americans, as they call blonde-haired Caucasians—and hear their diverse opinions on issues from the War in Iraq to pop music, then people realize how much diversity there is in our country."
With this same idea in mind, an American in Sudan adds that we should put particular emphasis on sending ethnically diverse Americans abroad.
Sixty years and still fighting the same battles. America's relative exclusion of a great many people from our public persona is not just a subject for liberal tears. It actively harms our image around the world. As it was in the Cold War, remedying racial exclusion is a matter of the gravest national interest. And indeed, Kevin Drum says the need to change America's "face" to the world may be one the best reasons to vote for Barack Obama. This coheres to my general view of casting an "affirmative action vote" for Obama. Obama is qualified and smart and politically agreeable -- but these are qualities he shares with several of his foes in the Democratic primary. What Obama has all to himself is that, in Drum's words, he is "the only one who would improve our standing just by being who he is." That's a qualification he has, that nobody else shares, and it deserves to enter into our political calculus when we enter the ballot box.
Once again, the interests of Whites and Blacks in America have converged, offering a chance for true synergy. We need to make the dream of the American creed a reality for all races. We need a strong, bright, qualified President. And we need to restore America's image around the world, and educate folks (with words and deeds) that there is more to America than just a bunch of wealthy White talking heads on TV and in the movies. Those goals are in accord with each other. This is an opportunity we'd be fools not to take advantage of.