Category: Faculty, Featured News, In the Media, News, Students

Title: SFS On Topic: Institutions Respond to the Black Lives Matter Movement

Author: Mairead MacRae
Date Published: July 2, 2020

This article is the second in a two-part series exploring how the SFS community is responding to George Floyd’s death and the mobilization of global anti-racism movements that followed in its wake. The first piece shared the testimonies of SFS community members who have been involved in direct action against systemic racism and provided faculty analysis on how the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement is resonating across the world. In this second piece, faculty members and students share their analysis on how powerful institutions are responding to these widespread, global anti-racism movements.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, MN, sparked protests against police brutality and racism across the world. George Floyd’s name, along with those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and people of color who had died at the hands of local police forces, was shouted in the streets of cities and towns globally, including in London, UK; Nairobi, Kenya; Seoul, South Korea and Mexico City, Mexico. 

In the United States, Black Lives Matter protests drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in all 50 states and anti-racism groups issued demands and calls for change from institutions of power operating at the local, national and international levels. In the face of these mobilized social movements, governments, corporations, religious institutions and employers reacted with a variety of measures, ranging from immediate reforms and promises of cultural change to aggressive retaliation against protesters and critics.

Over the past month of anti-racism protests, SFS faculty members, affiliates, alumni and students shared their experiences and analysis on how these movements are impacting societies across the world. Here, they share their perspectives and expertise on how national governments, world religions, the national security community and the field of international affairs itself is responding to this historic reckoning with systemic racism.

Read more in the following sections:

  • The World Watches: Consequences for U.S. Legitimacy Abroad
  • The National Security Community Responds
  • A “Kairos” Moment For the International Faith Community
  • Centering Anti-Racism In the Practice of International Affairs

The World Watches: Consequences for U.S. Legitimacy Abroad

Header image: Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP. Photo above: D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the section of 16th Street that runs in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

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Prof. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca argues that national leaders must reinforce democratic values and recognize protesters’ concerns if the United States is to maintain its legitimacy abroad.

Prof. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, Deputy Director and Co-Concentration Chair for International Politics and Security in the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, joined a prayer and protest meeting in Washington, D.C. In addition to the immediate impact of police violence on the Black community in the United States, Bibbins Sedaca has been thinking deeply about how federal and local governments’ responses to the protests will affect U.S. legitimacy on democracy and human rights abroad.

Whether the United States loses its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community will not depend on the protests but rather on our response to the protests,” she says.

“The protests are shining a light on the long-standing unaddressed issue of racism in our country. They point to where American democracy has fallen short, but they are not inherently the problem to American legitimacy,” she continues.

Leadership will be crucial in these days,” Bibbins Sedaca says. “We have the laws on the books, we have strong democratic institutions and we have strong democratic values. But the truth is these institutions have not always functioned perfectly and the values have not been lived into for all people at all times.”

“We have seen strong leadership in the civil society community unquestionably, and we’ve seen that in some local and state leaders. What we need to see is more of it at the national level,” she adds.

Prof. Scott Taylor believes that the use of force against protesters by local and federal governments means that the U.S. has already lost “the moral high ground” on human rights in many African countries.

Prof. Scott Taylor, Director of the African Studies Program at SFS, believes that damage to U.S. legitimacy abroad may already have been done in some areas of the world. “Baldly, the actions of the Trump administration and by U.S. police forces have diminished the legitimacy of U.S. policy actions in Africa, from democracy promotion, to insistence on human rights, to condemnation of policy actions by African states,” he says.

“I fear that the moral high ground, as much as it was or much as it is, is increasingly surrendered by the activities that are taking place here on our own soil,” he adds.

On Monday, June 1, U.S. federal and local police—some of whom did not wear identifying badges or insignia—used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protesters who were demonstrating along the route between the White House and St. John’s Episcopal Church, where President Trump held a photo opportunity for the press.

Taylor, who has served as an election observer in a number of African countries, said that the incident reminded him of a similar police attack that occurred while he was observing elections in Zimbabwe in 2018. Elections in the capital city, Harare, descended into chaos when military forces, also without insignia, used tear gas, helicopters and live ammunition to disperse protesters, resulting in numerous deaths. 

“This attack on basic freedom of assembly was rightly condemned by the United States and others,” he says. “Yet where’s our moral authority once the U.S. engages in this [activity]?”

“Thank God the [police action in Washington, D.C.] was brutal but non-lethal,” he continues. “But the lethality of police behavior in this country that’s giving rise to Black Lives Matter means it’s more and more difficult for the U.S. to claim the moral high ground.”

Anthony Clark Arend
Prof. Anthony Clark Arend says that the Trump administration’s use of force against D.C. protesters on June 1 saw at least one contravention of the Geneva Convention.

There has already been significant international rebuke to the U.S. federal government’s actions towards protests in Washington, D.C., says Prof. Anthony Clark Arend, Professor of Government and Foreign Service and Chair of the Government Department. 

On June 5, experts connected to the United Nations Human Rights Council released a statement condemning systemic racism in the United States. “In this statement, these experts noted that they were deeply concerned that the nation is on the brink of a militarized response that re-enacts injustices that have driven people to the streets to protest,” Arend says.

“At the same time, we saw at least one concrete violation of the Geneva Convention from 1949,” he continues. “In efforts to clear the streets near the White House, a Medevac helicopter bearing a red cross was used. This is a clear violation of Article 44 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the misuse of those distinctive symbols—the Red Cross, the Red Crescent. This was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. There are undoubtedly other human rights violations that will soon come to light.”

The National Security Community Responds

Photo: Military police clear the area in Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C., where protesters were demonstrating against the death of George Floyd. Alex Brandon/AP.

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Prof. Elizabeth Saunders interviewed national security leaders to assess how the Trump administration’s use of the military to disperse protesters will affect the U.S. military going forward.

Trump’s use of military personnel and resources also drew criticism from the national security community. SFS Associate Professor Elizabeth N. Saunders interviewed national security leaders and experts for The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog to gauge how these actions might impact the U.S. military going forward.

As Saunders reports, experts believe that, by using military force on protesters who he disagrees with, Trump risked undermining public belief in the military’s commitment to non-partisanship. According to SFS Associate Professor Caitlin Talmadge, this could have long-lasting consequences. 

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Prof. Caitlin Talmadge believes that perceptions of the military partisanship could hurt recruitment efforts and reduce Pentagon budgets.

“Such a perception could hurt the military’s ability to maintain internal cohesion and to recruit a diverse force,” Talmadge writes. “It also could puncture the bubble of political invincibility that has protected large Pentagon budgets since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leading the public and Congress to question whether spending hundreds of billions of dollars per year on defense has actually made the country safer.”

In a separate “Monkey Cage” piece, Saunders addressed Sec. of Defense Mark Esper’s televised criticism of Trump’s response to the protests. She characterized his critique as a significant moment for the Trump administration, noting that Esper’s comments stood out in particular because he delivered them live on television, reaching a broad U.S. audience in a way that could significantly sway public opinion and undermine Trump’s backing from top Republicans.

“It is plausible that Americans are more likely to pay attention when Esper speaks out on camera, contradicting the president’s stated preference to use the military on domestic soil to quell protests, than when an adviser talks about the use of force abroad,” she wrote. “Esper’s news conference will likely get attention among members of Congress, as well.”

Prof. Daniel Byman analyzes how white supremacist groups may seek to capitalize on instances where violent tactics have been used by police and protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Prof. Daniel Byman, Professor of Government and Foreign Service, explored the wider implications the protests may have for the fight against domestic white supremacy and terrorism. In an op-ed for Lawfare, Byman examined the increasingly powerful concept and tactic of “accelerationism” within white supremacists groups, which seek to increase civil disorder in the hopes that it will hasten the end of the established political order.

As Byman writes, “When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists. If violence can be increased sufficiently, the System will run out of lackeys and collapse, and the race war will commence.”

Though Byman says that the tactic is indicative of the relative weakness of white supremacist groups to foment the action required to realize their aims themselves, the concept has been championed by white supremacist terrorists, including Brenton Tarrant, who carried out the lethal New Zealand mosque attacks in 2019, and John Earnest, who killed a worshipper at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego, CA in the same year.

Countering accelerationism, Byman says, requires action from individuals at all levels of society. “For accelerationism to succeed, traditional politics must fail. Dialogue, compromise and steady (if often too slow) progress are its enemies,” he argues.

Part of the answer is political leadership at the top, but it’s not enough (nor realistic) to expect the current president to try to bring Americans together,” he continues. “Local leaders, civic organizations and ordinary citizens must reject extreme answers and recognize that although the parts of the system need to change, it does not need to be rejected completely.”

A “Kairos” Moment For the International Faith Community

Photo: Muslims protest the death of George Floyd in Brooklyn. John Lamparski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Prof. Katherine Marshall explains that George Floyd’s death represents a theologically critical moment for religious leaders.

The image of President Trump standing in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible aloft as law enforcement personnel confronted protesters made front pages around the world and garnered strong reactions from religious leaders and communities internationally. 

“People everywhere are watching what’s happening in the United States,” says Prof. Katherine Marshall, Professor of the Practice of Development, Conflict and Religion. “For many the view is a critical one, looking to the faults in the United States through the history of racism and through its persistence in the present. But many are also looking at their own houses, their own communities and seeing in them a common thread.”

Marshall draws attention to statements made by religious leaders, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, condemning racism and violence, as well as a June 4 Interfaith Council of New York City webinar event that brought together major religious bodies to address George Floyd’s killing and the public protests. 

Marshall argues that the response of many religious leaders and communities is indicative of a kairos moment, a theological concept and practice that obligates people of faith to take action during a critical or opportune moment. 

As Marshall explains, the concept of kairos has been applied in historic calls for anti-racist actions. “One of the most famous uses of the notion of the kairos moment was in 1985 in South Africa,” Marshall says. “Theologians called for a reflection, drawing on religious principles, of the system of apartheid.”

“[Right now], there is a sense that this is a special moment and there is hope that there can be wisdom and repentance for the ways in which religious communities have contributed to inequalities and to racism specifically,” she adds. 

Prof. Khaled Essessiah discusses how the U.S. Muslim community is responding to racism in the Unites States broadly but also within their own institutions.

Khaled Essessiah, Assistant Professor of Teaching in the African Studies Program and a scholar of Islam in Africa, says that there has also been an increase in dialogue within the U.S. Muslim community about racism within their community. 

“Imams and figures from American Muslim communities are standing in solidarity with African-Americans and condemning racism in American society,” he says. “[But] African-Americans face a lot of discrimination in mosques, and face racism within the Muslim community.”

He continues, “This has forced Muslim leaders to confront the reality of racism that exists within the Muslim community. All of us need to strongly speak out against racism wherever it rears its ugly head.”

Centering Anti-Racism In the Practice of International Affairs

Photo: A protester demonstrates outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Baz Ratner/Reuters.

As solidarity among protesters traverses national borders and institutions confront anti-Blackness within their own spheres of influence, dialogue within the international affairs community has begun to focus more deeply on the role of anti-racism in the practice of international relations. SFS faculty and fellows are among those leading the discussion and calling for action to center anti-racism within the field.

Amb. Bonnie Jenkins organized an open letter from more than 150 organizations and practitioners in national security to commit to more diverse hiring practices. The letter was signed by a number of SFS faculty members and affiliates.

SFS Adjunct Professor Amb. Bonnie Jenkins worked with Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation to pen an open letter from more than 150 organizations and practitioners in national security and foreign policy pledging to add more diversity to their staff and boards of directors. Members of the SFS community were among the signatories, including Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS); Jeni Klugman, Managing Director of GWIPS; Carla Koppell, Senior Fellow at GIWPS; Joseph Cirincione (MSFS’83), President of The Ploughshares Fund and Uzra Zeya (SFS’89), President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and former Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

Speaking about the consequences of under-representation of people of color in international affairs, Jenkins told Foreign Policy, “There’s not the presence of them, there’s not the mentorships for them, and so the policies that are developed do not reflect their input.”

“Younger people don’t see people of color, so they don’t go into these fields,” she added.

Alongside a number of SFS colleagues, Amb. Donald McHenry signed a statement from the Association of Black American Ambassadors condemning police violence against Black Americans.

A number of SFS faculty and fellows, including Amb. James Gadsden, Director of the McHenry Fellows Scholarship Program at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD); Amb. Donald McHenry, former Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy; Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Non-Resident Fellow at ISD, and Jenkins, signed a statement from the Association of Black American Ambassadors condemning police violence against Black Americans.

“We believe it is time for all people of conscience to voice their opposition to legally sanctioned violence; it is tarnishing America’s image at home and abroad,” read the letter.

It continued, “We join our fellow citizens, brothers and sisters in demanding an end to inhumane police practices; we call for accountability, fairness, transparency and transformation in our national, state and local institutions, including legal, judicial and law enforcement systems, to prevent future violence of this kind.”

Prof. Travis L. Adkins wrote an op-ed in Foreign Policy calling on international affairs professionals to publicly address and take action on domestic racism in the United States.

Travis L. Adkins, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Center for Security Studies, penned an op-ed with co-author Judd Devermont in Foreign Policy calling for international affairs professionals to address issues of U.S. racism within their practice.

As Adkins explains, systemic racism in the United States has long impacted foreign policy. He details U.S. diplomats’ attempts to build ties with newly independent African states at the same time as Black civil rights leaders were critiquing racism at home as an example where U.S. rhetoric abroad was undermined by domestic action. 

Adkins speaks of his personal experience as a Black professional in the field, describing his frustration that so many of his white colleagues seem unable to perceive human rights abuses on U.S. soil, even while condemning those perpetrated by forces overseas.

“It strains credulity that they could display such passion and acuity for police abuses against Africans in Harare, Lagos and Nairobi, yet be so deliberately obtuse to the same injustices faced by African Americans in Baltimore, Ferguson or Minneapolis,” he writes.

Adkins and Devermont call for an end to prevailing norms in which diplomats and foreign affairs practitioners refrain from speaking and acting publicly on domestic issues, and encourage their colleagues to support anti-racist actions in their own institutions. 

“There must be a break from past practices. Diplomats and foreign-policy leaders must raise their voices at home—and continue to keep them loud abroad in recognition of the inextricable linkages between the two,” they write. 

Graduate student Ishanee Chanda (MSFS’21) says that she and her classmates represent a new generation of policy-makers who will center anti-racism in their international affairs practice.

For students within SFS, the recent police killings and subsequent protests have galvanized their commitment to anti-racist work in their future careers. Graduate student Ishanee Chanda (MSFS’21) is looking ahead to the work she intends to do post-graduation next year. 

“We want the world to know that hundreds and thousands of us will keep fighting for this,” she says. “That is what the heart and soul of America is and should be. And that is the heart and soul of what we will bring back to international affairs. We are here and we are coming.”

Undergraduate student William Hammond (SFS’23) says that the U.S. must dismantle racism at home before it can have legitimacy abroad.

Undergraduate student William Hammond (SFS’23) says the treatment of Black people in the United States undermines the image the United States presents of itself abroad, as a free and democratic society.

“We [the United States] have exposed ourselves. You look at Ahmaud Arbery. A man couldn’t even run down the street and not get shot,” he says. “We’ve got work to do and for us to maintain our status abroad, that work has to come to fruition.”