American power and racism

Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War, which suddenly feels extremely relevant – especially after Charlottesville. In my last post, I mentioned David Blight’s Race and Reunion, a study of the memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It brilliantly shows how, during that period, a sectional reconciliation took place that was based on Southern terms and thus entrenched racism in America. But as a foreign policy analyst, I was particularly interested in Blight’s discussion of American imperialism at a time of worsening race relations in 1890s, which it seemed to me raises difficult questions about the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and race relations in America.

Blight discusses the Spanish-American War of 1898, which led to the U.S. acquisition of Guam and Puerto Rico and was followed by a colonial war in the Philippines that lasted until 1903 – during which Rudyard Kipling famously urged the United States to “take up the White Man’s Burden” (1899). Blight writes that the war with Spain “made America a world power” but also “exposed the racial paradoxes of the American reunion” and exacerbated racial tensions. He shows that the war was a key moment in the sectional reconciliation as North and South united against a common external foe. The Atlanta Constitution said it was the “culmination of the reconciliation that commenced at Appomattox.” A cartoon published in a Chicago newspaper showed a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier standing next to each other, gazing at a burning Cuba.

In this context there was a “racialization of patriotism” that excluded African-Americans. By the time of the war, Blight writes, “the slow wave of disenfranchisement and segregation laws had begun to roll over Southern political life”. In 1896 the Supreme Court had enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine. At the same time there had been an “explosion” of racist violence against African-Americans, which particularly fuelled black anti-imperialist sentiment. Some black Americans initially thought the war might be an opportunity to demonstrate courage and loyalty and thus erode prejudice against them – and 10,000 black Americans enlisted and fought. But, Blight writes, “so much had lynching become the hideous underside of black life in America that most blacks could only view the nation’s excursion into imperialism through this violent prism”.

So what does the relationship between American imperialism and racism at the end of the nineteenth century tell us more generally about relationship between U.S. foreign policy and race relations in America? The obvious conclusion to draw is that racism at home and imperialism abroad go hand in hand. Blight writes of the emergence in the 1890s of an “alliance between white supremacy and imperialism”. The current conjuncture seems to confirm the existence of such a link between racism and an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. It is easy to see the foreign policy shift from the Obama administration to the Trump administration in exactly these terms and conclude that, conversely, “liberalism” in foreign policy aligns neatly with racial equality at home. After all, Obama supported the liberal international order; Trump wants to destroy it.

Perhaps, however, it’s not that simple. It seems to me that Woodrow Wilson – the first Southerner elected as president since the Civil War, with whom the story Blight tells in Race and Reunion begins and ends – is particularly interesting in this context. Wilson, an idealist in foreign policy terms, was in a sense the founding father of the liberal international order – theorists of the liberal international order such as John Ikenberry see the post-war order as a thicker version of the order he tried to create after World War I. Yet Wilson was also a racist whose administration, Blight points out, was aggressively increasing segregation in federal agencies at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in 1913. In foreign policy discussions, Wilson’s racism is hardly ever mentioned – as if it were separate from, and irrelevant to, his ideas on foreign policy. But is it really?


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