Race relations in the United States are back on the global agenda after recent decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of two African Americans in two separate cases: one in Missouri and the other in New York. Some people say the cases have hurt the image of the United States and maybe its ability to project its values.
The decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City sparked widespread protests and global news coverage. Protests continued for days all around the United States, and inspired support across the world, including at this protest in London.
At the city’s King’s College, American Studies students have been talking about the issue in their classes.
“It’s not a good thing,” said Xiang Yingchao, a 23-year-old economics student from China, who has studied in the United States. “A lot of Chinese press, they said, like, ‘Oh, in the U.S. they always advocate human rights, but look at them. It’s like they have two standards of human rights.’”
These students study America, and all have visited.
They see the incident in New York as a clear case of unpunished police brutality, but view the Ferguson incident as less clear cut. But 53-year-old masters’ degree student Paul Zimmerman of London said the details are not as important as the broader point.
“There’s an assumption that somehow there’s something that has gone on that isn’t quite right. Maybe they’ve come up with the right conclusion, but in a sense that doesn’t really matter,” he said.
24-year-old classmate Mark Eastwood from northern England agreed. “I would say it’s exposed a broader issue. It’s more, for me, the story of Ferguson and what’s happened in New York in the last week or so, is more about the issues of structural racism,” said Eastwood.
There’s also a sense of disappointment that the election of Barack Obama does not mean all of America’s racial issues have been solved.
“Electing a black president, in theory, is transformational but there’s a lot that needs to happen to correct many, many years of systemic unfairness,” said Zimmerman.
“One black president cannot change these things. They have to change their justice system, even their laws,” said Xiang.
Their teacher, Joshua Simon, said some of his students see two aspects to the stories from Ferguson and New York.
“They’re thinking of it as a pretty shocking demonstration of the remaining racial injustices in the United States and [also] a pretty encouraging sign that the population in the United States isn’t going to take these events lying down," said Simon.
The emotional scenes of the funerals added to the public reaction overseas. Simon said many people give the United States well-deserved credit for progress on race relations. He said the recent incidents, though, have shifted the focus to how much work remains to be done, while also making the U.S. aspiration to be "a moral leader" more difficult.