When I was a freshman, I took a UGS class called "So You Think That's Black Dance?" and one of the topics we discussed was white privilege. The articulation of this concept was pretty foreign to me, so after I read our assigned reading, Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," I began taking a closer look at various opportunities in my life that I have often taken for granted. Some of these opportunities are because I happened to be born into a middle-class family in a suburban town, but some of the specific references in McIntosh’s essay (which I acknowledge isn't perfect, but is still important) point out that I am also privileged because of the color of my skin.
I have never had to worry about anyone thinking less of me because of the way I look, and my accomplishments aren't noted as "a credit to my race.” I'm not saying that people who have this privilege should feel guilt, but recognizing this unfairness is the first step to ensuring it begins to diminish, because it shows very few signs of doing so now, and this isn’t right.
The protests and riots that the Michael Brown case evoked are a stark illustration of the reality that is this world, no matter how much people try to ignore it. Racial tensions, while they aren’t as pronounced as in the past, very obviously still exist, and people can't just accept that. Why not listen to the people protesting rather than dismissing them, and try to begin to understand their point of view? Our society prides itself on listening to opposing viewpoints, until those viewpoints are too contrary to what we want to believe. Striving toward a society in which everyone is born with the same opportunities is unrealistic, but that’s no reason to ignore the fact that some people are treated unfairly for no good reason, and a crucial step in fixing this is simply listening.
It's early in the morning as I write this, and for the past three hours or so, the streets of Ferguson, Mo. appear reminiscent of a Middle Eastern war zone. Huge swaths of the town, a suburb of St Louis, are engulfed in flames. The riots, looting and overall civil unrest are ostensibly a result of a local grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson, a police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, over the summer. I say “ostensibly” because the most organized activists against the police brutality have emphatically condemned and distanced themselves from the lootings and violence. The Brown family has even directly urged residents not to sully their son's name through such contemptible acts.
Granted, at press time, not all the evidence given to the grand jury has been made public yet, and I did not have a chance this past evening to meticulously scrutinize all that has been released. But from what I found, the fact that the grand jury declined to issue an indictment for at least some underlying offense such as manslaughter (if not second degree murder) is perplexing, to say the least. Unlike a conviction, an indictment requires a significantly lower burden of proof, one that does not convey guilt but merely the illustrates the preponderance of it.
Given the facts, including numerous eyewitness accounts and that Wilson shot Brown six times, including some at close range, it is difficult to see how that standard was not reached. Furthermore, the speculation by some that the lead prosecutor even guided the grand jury away from an indictment doesn't sound proper, if not a total dereliction of duty on the part of the DA.
It is always dangerous to prognosticate on these types of distant, cloaked proceedings. But from the information currently available to the public, it is a miscarriage of justice that a white officer can shoot an unarmed black teenager with impunity, especially six times. That is not just the opinion of radicals, it was recently espoused by the National Bar Association.
I have little doubt that the decision was reached, at least partially, on account of race. While white people in Ferguson are only 28 percent of the population, they comprised 75 percent of the grand jury. Granted, the grand jury was empaneled from citizens around the larger, whiter county, but the point remains the same. 50 years onward from the Civil Rights Act, and 20 years from the Rodney King riots, it appears the United States still has quite a long way to go on the topic of race.
In “21 Jump Street,” a former nerd played by Jonah Hill and former bully played by Channing Tatum return to high school as undercover narcotics officers, expecting the world to look exactly as it did in the 1990s. Instead, they find a completely different social hierarchy, in which Tatum’s particular species of villain is virtually extinct. The modern high school still has jerks and ruffians, but none quite so callous and meatheaded as the archetypical alpha male jock.
While a movie called “21(st) Century International Relations” might not pull in the same quantity of box-office receipts, it would probably have a similar premise. Throughout the 20th century, brutal autocrats played a starring role in shaping global conflicts. From the regal kaisers and sultans of World War I to the fascist strongmen of World War II to the communist despots of the Cold War, the U.S. always had a crop of enemies it could easily label as villains.
But in recent years, those types of dictatorships have started to die out. American invasions toppled dictators in Afghanistan and Iraq. Local revolutions brought democracy to Tunisia and ejected two autocrats in a three-year span in Egypt. Governmental reforms have started to slowly liberalize Vietnam and Cuba. With a few exceptions, like North Korea’s enigmatic Kim Jong-un and Zimbabwe’s geriatric Robert Mugabe, there aren’t a lot of unabashed tyrants out there in the world today.
And now that its more ideological enemies are mostly insurgent groups, America’s battles with other states have become increasingly driven by competing self-interests. Figures like Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani often label themselves democratic or capitalistic, but neither is a trustworthy leader, and both stand resolutely opposed to America’s international agendas.
That’s what makes recent U.S. foreign policy so dangerous. The Obama administration is currently negotiating a compromise with Iran that would hopefully lead to a freeze on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, and the American response to Putin’s aggressive warmongering in Eastern Europe has been nothing more than harsh rhetoric and a weak set of sanctions. George W. Bush didn’t do much better. The former president famously said of Putin in 2001, “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I got a sense of his soul.”
These missteps can delude the American public into a false sense of security. Because no rational state would launch a major attack against the U.S. right now, it’s easy to conclude that maybe softening up is a good approach after all. While the U.S. takes its time to forge amenable solutions with its adversaries, its allies in the Middle East live in constant fear of Iran’s violent puppets, which include the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. Similarly, Poland and the Baltic states have good reason to fear Putin’s incursions into Eastern Europe, and neither the U.S. nor the EU is alleviating their concerns. Plus, the amount of respect other countries hold for American power is far from constant, and changes in their political climates can be subtle and gradual. Just as Austin’s unusually chilly November doesn’t disprove climate change, the lack of an imminent war with Russia or Iran doesn’t make them harmless.
Close diplomatic ties with rival states aren’t impossible, and trust among opposing leaders is one of the most powerful forces for change in international politics. But a brash and increasingly power-drunk Putin is no Mikhail Gorbachev, and not even a moderate rhetorician like Rouhani can overcome Ayatollah Khomeini’s grip on Iranian policy. Appeasement and diplomacy can work, but in these particular cases, America needs a stronger approach, either through full trade embargoes or a credible threat of NATO action. Playing nice might maintain a stable status quo, but it won't keep America or its allies safe in the long run.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics major from Westport, Conn.