Protest against police brutality in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Emma Lazarus penned the previous lines of her poem, “The New Colossus”, in 1883 as part of a fundraising effort for the construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Immigrants arrived in the United States by the thousand, filling its cities, its factories, and its wide open lands. Lazarus saw unparalleled opportunity for even the most destitute of other nations’ citizens, if only they could find their way to America’s shores. She viewed the Statue of Liberty as the physical embodiment of a uniquely American ethos of opportunity, redemption, and freedom.
Lazarus was neither the first nor the last to view America in this light. Before even setting foot upon its shores, John Winthrop proclaimed the land’s destiny as a beacon of morality to the world. Speaking to the intrepid passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1630, he declared “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.” Oft quoted by American politicians, his words worked to shape Americans’ view of their country for centuries. A cornerstone of American Exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is an ethical and moral model worthy of the world’s emulation endures today.
It is a narrative that boasts impressive bipartisan adherents. President John F. Kennedy famously invoked Winthrop in 1961, saying that “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, State, and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.” President Ronald Reagan made frequent use of Winthrop’s words throughout his presidency, claiming without equivocation that “We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
President Obama presents a more tempered view of both the desirability of the American model and America’s leading role in the world. He provided a telling response to a reporter’s inquiry in 2009, saying that “I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
Yet how deserving is America of such self-congratulatory remarks and praise? Is the indispensable nation still a model for the world? Was it ever? As Palestinians tweet advice for dealing with teargas to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and states from Egypt to North Korea chide the United States for human rights violations as its militarized police gain notoriety for seemingly unchecked extrajudicial killings of racial minorities, one could be forgiven for opening this line of questioning. It is time to recognize that the city on a hill has a human rights problem beneath its glossy veneer of moral triumphalism.
Ignoring for a moment America’s brutal immigration policies, its rank of 46 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, its unwavering support for Israel, and a litany of other issues, statistics on race and crime paint a poor picture of man’s last best hope on earth.
Black Americans account for 60% of the prison population, despite accounting for roughly 30% of the overall population. Once convicted, black defendants receive prison sentences 10% longer than their white counterparts. From 2010 to 2012, black teenagers between 15 and 19 were 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white teenagers of the same age. Whites overestimate the proportion of crimes committed by black perpetrators, on average by 20-30%. In responding to recent, racially-charged events, 80% of black respondents said that the Ferguson shooting raises the important issue of race in American society, compared to less than half of whites. The statistics roll on in an ever more disheartening depiction of structural and societal racism in America today.
If holding up a model worthy of emulation is a fundamental element of American foreign policy, then the United States would do well to address more than the dearth of body cameras worn by its civilian police force. America finds no sure-footing upon which to ground its soft power if it cannot address even basic components of human rights in its own cities and towns. Not only does this inability hobble foreign policy efforts, but it is more importantly an all too real human tragedy.
In the wake of Eric Garner’s videotaped death at the hands of the New York City police on July 12, ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, and the subsequent grand jury decision to not indict the officer who killed him, protesters have begun using Garner’s dying words as a rallying cry. “I can’t breathe” can be seen everywhere from protestors’ posters to Twitter hashtags, a heartbreaking reminder of America’s myth of post-racialism. Where Lazarus once called for those yearning to breathe free to seek passage to America, it seems that a breath of freedom remains out of reach for many.
Chris Newton is a senior Political Science major and International Development Studies minor at the University of Notre Dame.