To the World, We’re Now America the Racist and Pitiful

The real saga of the Statue of Liberty—the symbolic face of America around the world, and the backdrop of New York’s dazzling Fourth of July fireworks show—is an obscure piece of U.S. history. It had nothing to do with immigration. The telltale clue is the chain under Lady Liberty’s feet: she is stomping on it. “In the early sketches, she was also holding chains in her hand,” Edward Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, told me last week. The shackles were later replaced with a tablet noting the date of America’s independence. But the shattered chain under her feet remained.

The statue was the brainchild of Edouard de Laboulaye, a prominent French expert on the U.S. Constitution who also headed the French Anti-Slavery Society. After the Civil War, in 1865, he wanted to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., enshrined in the new Thirteenth Amendment, which, in theory, reaffirmed the ideals of freedom—this time for all people—first embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The now famous line—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” from a poem by Emma Lazarus—wasn’t added until 1903, Berenson noted. The poem had been donated as part of a literary auction to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal. France donated the statue; the Americans had to raise the funds to pay for its pedestal. Long after Lazarus’s death, a friend lobbied to have the poem engraved on a plaque and added to the base. It has since associated the Statue of Liberty with a meaning that Laboulaye never intended.

One has to wonder what Laboulaye would think of America today, amid one of the country’s gravest periods of racial turmoil since the Civil War. Last month, a poll by Ipsos found that an overwhelming majority of people in fourteen countries, on six continents, support the protests that erupted across the United States after the murder of George Floyd. Russia, the fifteenth country in the survey, was the only place where a minority—about a third—backed the demonstrators.

On the eve of America’s anniversary—our two hundred and forty-fourth—much of the world believes that the country is racist, battered and bruised. “Europe has long been suspicious—even jealous—of the way America has been able to pursue national wealth and power despite its deep social inequities,” Robin Niblett, the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, in London, told me. “When you take the Acela and pass through the poorest areas of Baltimore, you can’t believe you’re looking at part of the United States. There’s always been this sense of an underlying flaw in the U.S. system that it was getting away with—that somehow America was keeping just one step ahead of the grim reaper.”

The flaw, he said, is reflected in the American obsession with the stock market as the barometer of national health—economically, politically, socially. The reaction to Floyd’s murder exposed the deep injustices in the American economic model, as well as in the police and judicial systems, Niblett said. Europeans, he added, are no longer so envious.

The Trump Administration’s ineptitude in handling the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the President’s disdain for longstanding allies and international treaties, have compounded the damage to America’s image. A second poll, released last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, reported that public perceptions of the United States are increasingly negative in virtually all of the European nations surveyed. In France, the country that backed the American Revolution and later donated the Statue of Liberty, forty-six per cent of the people polled said that their opinion of the U.S. has “worsened a lot.” The proportion of respondents who still view America as a key ally is “vanishingly small”—as low as six per cent in Italy.

America’s standing worldwide has sunk before, although usually over foreign-policy decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. The mood globally feels different now, Richard Burkholder, who was the director of Gallup’s international polling for decades, told me. Criticism is now focussed on American practices at home. “The United States was once a beacon,” he said. “I don’t see people looking up to us as they did before.” Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for the Irish Times, was blunter. “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger,” he wrote, in April. “But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.”

Negative polls, however, don’t capture the depth of anguish among people who long believed in American ideals, however imperfectly they were implemented in the past. Antoinette Sithole’s little brother, Hector Pieterson, was the George Floyd of South Africa. On June 16, 1976, I was in Soweto, then the black township outside Johannesburg, when the first mass uprising against apartheid began. The white minority government had just announced that children would henceforth be taught in Afrikaans, the language of white settlers. Black children poured out of schools in protest. Police opened fire. Hector, who was thirteen, was the first to die. The picture of a teen-ager carrying Hector’s limp body, Antoinette screaming at his side, made the front pages of newspapers worldwide—and eventually onto the walls of the United Nations. The memorial to the uprising—which eventually led to Nelson Mandela’s freedom, fourteen years later—is the Hector Pieterson Museum, in Soweto. Over the decades, Antoinette and I have stayed in touch. Her firstborn is named for her brother.

“You know everyone in South Africa, including me, thought the United States is the country where one can live better and be comfortable—a dreamland,” she told me. But America has recently turned into “a bully,” she said, adding, “I am wondering, why do they dwell so much on color? Being black, it’s a threat to them. Why? George Floyd was killed like a beast. For what?” Black and white go together “like hands,” she said. “How can you separate people? The one hand needs the other.” Discrimination in the twenty-first century in the United States is the same as apartheid in South Africa was in the twentieth, she said. Both represent evil.

Abdulkarim Soroush was an Iranian revolutionary who soured on the Islamic Republic. I met him at Tehran University, after he became the father of the country’s reform movement, in the nineteen-nineties. Soroush was known as the Martin Luther of Islam because—like the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, in the sixteenth century—he challenged the absolutist beliefs and abusive practices of a faith. Soroush, a British-educated philosopher, infuriated Iran’s theocratic rulers by arguing that individual freedoms preceded religious belief. “The first pillar is this: To be a true believer, one must be free,” he told me, in 1995. “To become a believer under pressure or coercion will not be true belief. And this freedom is the basis of democracy.” A few months after that discussion, I was at the Jefferson Memorial, in Washington, D.C., and saw four quotes on its walls. I took photos and carried them back to Iran on my next visit. I laid the four pictures out on Soroush’s oak desk. One of them read “Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens . . . are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.” Soroush read each one, then took off his wire-rimmed glasses. “Exactly,” he pronounced.

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