The Other Soft Bigotry

by Chris Curran | 11/25/02 6:00am

There exists a consensus within America that it is wrong and racist to hold members of one race to a lower standard than those of another. Indeed, President Bush made the elimination of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" a cornerstone of his education policy during the most recent presidential election. This is a very positive development in our culture, but sadly it has not been extended to our foreign policy. American foreign policy has tended to condemn human rights abuses of white leaders but has often given a pass on more serious abuses by black or non-Western leaders. This dichotomy is wrong, and also detrimental to our credibility in forging a color-blind foreign policy.

The most obvious instance of this double standard is the West's attitude toward Zimbabwe relative to its past pressure on South Africa. About a decade ago in South Africa, a white-ruled government, led by F.W. de Klerk, oppressed a black majority until foreign pressure led to the end of apartheid. Divestment from South Africa, coupled with diplomatic isolation and sanctions, led the regime to make many positive changes. A new constitution was adopted, black leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the nation instituted universal suffrage. South Africa stands as a beacon of hope for the progress that can be made when the United States and other allies recognize an immoral regime and dedicate their efforts to changing it.

Contrast that success story with the current turmoil, and similarly racist governmental policies, in Zimbabwe today. There, dictator Robert Mugabe has instituted his own apartheid regime, confiscating white-owned farms without compensation, imprisoning those who protest and committing numerous other human rights abuses. At a time when most citizens are on the verge of starvation, Mugabe elected to expel farmers from their land, thereby exacerbating the death toll.

Yet the world community has been relatively silent on this issue. While it is more difficult to forge a divestment campaign against a nation that lacks strong property rights, pressure could nonetheless be applied if the world were serious about confronting this type of apartheid. The travel visas issued to Mugabe's family members for shopping trips to Paris should not have been granted. Foreign bank accounts have not been successfully frozen.

Why hasn't Mugabe been adequately challenged? Mr. Mugabe is black, and some of his victims, though by no means a majority, are white. To some, including those who make American foreign policy decisions, that distinction makes condemnation of Mugabe's crimes less urgent. I disagree. Disenfranchisement is wrong regardless of who is being targeted. So are state-sponsored killings by paramilitary hit squads. The wrongness of these actions knows no color boundary.

This double standard is equally evident in the conflicting ways in which Westerners have approached the deaths of Palestinian people. For its military policies, Israel receives considerable scrutiny. This is fair; all governments should be subject to criticism. But those who criticize Israel are intellectually dishonest when they are silent about the similar, and sometimes greater, human rights violations of other Middle Eastern nations regarding the Palestinians. In 1970, Jordan massacred thousands of Palestinians in two days in what was termed "Black September." There was no divestment campaign. Why not target Jordan for its actions? Even if you believe that Israel has no right to exist and that all of its actions are illegitimate, intellectual consistency demands that you also criticize regimes that have also killed many Palestinians.

More recently, Kuwait expelled thousands of Palestinians following the Gulf War. Yet there has been no divestment case made against Kuwait, and indeed the United States counts the nation as one of its strongest allies in the region. The selection of Israel for disproportionate criticism is a complex one, but one contributing factor is the Western-versus-Eastern lens in which the conflict is seen by some people. Though the lens is different from the black-versus-white lens that is common in many other conflicts, the elements of a double standard are nonetheless similar. As a result, Israel faces much harsher condemnation for actions that otherwise would go unnoticed in the Arab world.

While the double standards concerning Zimbabwe, Jordan and Kuwait are regrettable, no comparison can do justice to the tolerance for slavery that the world has exhibited concerning Sudan. Many people don't realize that slavery still exists in the year 2002. It does: for 10 years Muslims from northern Sudan have enslaved Christians and followers of tribal faiths from southern Sudan. This is unconscionable. But because the slavery involves blacks enslaving other blacks, the world has not acted. Two million people have been killed, in what Secretary of State Colin Powell called "the worst human rights nightmare on the planet." Though Powell's words are helpful, they have not been followed by adequate action. Where are self-appointed black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? Why aren't they protesting at the Sudanese embassy every day until the practice stops? Why don't ordinary people care that an abomination as evil as slavery still endures in today's world? I believe the answer lies in the common phenomenon wherein we hold Westerners and whites to the same exacting standards as we hold ourselves while giving non-westerners a free pass on human rights abuses.

Some people see tolerance of repressive foreign regimes as a sign of their enlightenment and of their ability to be non-judgmental. I believe that attitude is closer to cowardice masquerading as sophistication. Human rights are by definition not restricted to Westerners or those with fair skin. They are universal. It is time we recognized them as such and eliminated the many double standards that characterize our foreign policy today. We need to apply standards universally, regardless of whether a nation seems unimportant (Sudan) or too important (Kuwait). Let us focus attention on all barbaric regimes, without concern for color or geography, until the world is made unsafe for their practices. The soft bigotry of low expectations hurts peoples of all colors. It is time we held all leaders to a higher and consistent standard.

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