In what might be viewed as a get-your-own-house-in-order comment, Russian President Vladimir Putin served up the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, as an example of why the United States should not lecture him on how he handles dissent in his country.
Appearing Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Putin responded to correspondent Charlie Rose’s question about his intolerance for democratic dissent in Russia with a side-eye comment about the United States’ reaction last year to racially tense demonstrations following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
“Do you believe that everything is perfect now from the point of view of democracy in the United States?” Putin said, seemingly lying in wait to spring that riposte to criticism of his policies. “If everything was perfect, there wouldn’t be the problem of Ferguson. There would be no abuse by the police. But our task is to see all these problems and respond properly.”
Putin scored a direct and below-the-waterline hit where our nation is most vulnerable—our history of structural racism and our ongoing struggle to deal appropriately with it. What’s more, his comment harkens back to the Cold War era, when civil rights issues in the United States were debated points in the battle for global moral authority. Back then, the nation’s leaders were quite reluctant to acknowledge the obvious hypocrisy in their preaching of democracy abroad and failure to practice it at home.
John David Skrentny—a University of California, San Diego, sociologist—pointed out this phenomenon in his 1998 paper “The Effect of the Cold War on African-American Civil Rights: America and the World Audience, 1945–1968,” published in the journal Theory and Society. Skrentny was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania when he wrote the paper. He noted:
Awareness and concern for the world audience regularly appeared in private White House conversations on the topic of civil rights, and was an accepted reason to support administration pro-civil-rights initiatives. In delivering a report of the President’s Committee on Government Employment Policy on March 25, 1960 to the Eisenhower cabinet, Chairman Archibald J. Carey, Jr. reminded the secretaries that non-discrimination “affects our posture in world affairs” and related his experiences as a member of the United States delegation to the U.N., where he listened to “spokesmen of other countries indict our own nation for the double standard which has existed here, on the basis of race, or religion, or national origin.”
Other historians, scholars, and social activists have noted the same thing. Raymond Arsenault, for example, wrote in his marvelous 2006 book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice that President John F. Kennedy cared little about civil rights before his election to the White House and was annoyed by the young folks who were beaten as they challenged southern racism by daring to ride interstate buses across Dixie. “Kennedy’s first impulse was to try to keep details of the violence out of the press,” wrote noted historian Eric Foner in his New York Times review of Arsenault’s book.
In time, due largely to the protestors’ persistence, the Kennedy White House came around and demanded that the Interstate Commerce Commission ban segregation on interstate bus travel, effectively winning the rights of black passengers to ride unrestricted across the nation. As Foner noted, “the cold war created a favorable context for racial change” in part because “the photographs that flashed across the world embarrassed the White House. But the conflict with the Soviets also inspired deep distrust of any movement that included critics of American foreign policy.”
As Putin spun Rose’s question to Ferguson, he seemed determined to pull on a thread that might evoke in Americans a guilty sense of déjà vu. But it is not the ‘60s anymore, and the strategies of the Cold War aren’t fungible today, said my colleague Brian Katulis, a Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and a national security expert.
“Ultimately, I think it’s inaccurate for the Russian president to compare our situation with Russia’s,” Katulis told me. “We have a much better overall record on justice and human rights, but the fact that he and other leaders do so points to a need for us to always be striving to correct the shortcomings we have at home while we try to project the best ideals abroad.”
To be sure, enlightened Americans are doing just that. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) demonstrated an understanding of the imperative that this nation live up to its moral voice on systemic racial injustice and inequality. “None of us can ignore what is happening in this country. Not when our black friends, family, neighbors literally fear dying in the streets,” Sen. Warren said in a speech last weekend. “This is the reality all of us must confront, as uncomfortable and ugly as that reality may be. It comes to us to once again affirm that black lives matter, that black citizens matter, that black families matter.”
What’s more, hours after the “60 Minutes” broadcast, President Barack Obama took to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly to lecture Putin and other strong-arm leaders for refusing to support democracy.
“Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition,” President Obama said, arguing that superpower nations should not have the freedom to break international treaties. “America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might—that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future.”
But the president, seemingly predicting the arrogance of American critics like Putin, previously inoculated himself and the nation when he mentioned Ferguson in a speech to the United Nations in 2014:
I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. … In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri—where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear. …
We welcome the scrutiny of the world—because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect. … America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.
If only President Putin, ensconced in his glass house, could say as much.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.