The End of Third World Solidarity?

Salim Muwakkil

The Bush administration has been a disaster for America’s global image. Its cavalier dismissal of international treaties and diplomacy has tainted the entire nation as a bunch of unilateralists and hegemons. 

Through artful deployment of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the Bushites have put reasonable brown faces on policies that continue the U.S. tradition of bombing dark people.

After 9/11, the Bushites’ blunt and bellicose response quickly squandered global sympathy and dismayed international police agencies. The administration’s heedless invasion of Iraq alienated allies and accelerated growth of the kind of Islamic radicalism that inspired 9/11. The image damage done by just three Bush years is surely a milestone in the history of negative PR.

But one of the least-noticed changes is how this administration has altered the global image of African Americans. Through its artful deployment of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Bushites have put reasonable brown faces on policies that continue the U.S. tradition of bombing dark people. These two black Bushites are among the president’s top advisors and their presence seems intended to confer a sense of credibility.

Powell and Rice both have been sullied by the Bush administration’s foreign policy deceptions. And because of their prominence on the world stage, that taint has tarnished the image of all black Americans. That’s a big change.

For much of the last century, America’s descendants of enslaved Africans were considered victims of the same colonial forces that slaughtered and oppressed indigenous people across the globe. African Americans were embraced as full partners in a Third World liberation movement that sought new forms of solidarity.

The notion was never much more than a hope that growing political affinities could produce durable institutions capable of altering global power relations. And it turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream, born of runaway political romanticism.

But in the heady years following the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, when 29 former colonies decided to coalesce as nonaligned nations, prospects for developing Third World institutions seemed increasingly possible.

That optimism also was reflected in the rhetoric of African-American leaders; folks like Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, W. E. B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X all were fond of touting the potential benefits of this new global solidarity. Many in the civil rights movement began to describe their struggle as part of a larger, global fight against colonialism and imperialism.

In the late 60s and early 70s, African-American organizations increasingly identified with liberation movements on the African continent. They made common cause with the independence struggles in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and Angola.

And the feeling was mutual. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of post-colonial Ghana, considered U.S. blacks fellow soldiers in the struggle for independence from European domination. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh reportedly was an ardent devotee of black history and wrote a book on racism in the United States. Tales were rife among Vietnam-era veterans (of which I am one) about black GIs receiving preferential treatment from the people of Vietnam. During the outbreak of urban disorders following the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King (who urged Third World solidarity), Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung famously expressed support for the just struggle of the black people in the United States.”

When Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, they captured 66 American hostages. Four days later, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the release of 13 black and female hostages.

But as Khomeini’s affirmative action revealed, this notion also presents a dilemma: Does Third World solidarity clash with loyalty to America? This divergence between self-interest and patriotism is a dilemma African Americans have faced since British enemies” offered slaves freedom for opposing the Continental American army in the Revolutionary War.

For African Americans the dilemma remains. But around the world, we are losing the benefit of the doubt. According to media commentaries and anecdotal accounts from African Americans abroad, the sins of Powell and Rice now are being borne by their homies. 

Many may not consider this a bad thing. After all, African Americans have fought in all of America’s wars. Why, they argue, should racial distinctions affect our national allegiance?

But history did not treat black and white Americans the same, and that difference produced disparate sensibilities. African Americans’ embrace of Third World solidarity was the product of a history that had more in common with colonialism’s victims than with its masters.

With Powell and Rice acting as mouthpieces for the rampaging rogue nation that is the world’s only superpower, it’s becoming harder and harder to see them as victims.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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