White Americans have been surprised at the reaction in the African-American community to recent events, whether it be the O.J. Simpson verdict or Louis Farrakhan's leadership role. So, too, are people in the US often surprised at responses in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to US actions and policies. US aid is criticized abroad and apparently unappreciated; political gestures seen as positive in Washington are attacked in foreign capitals.
Parallels exist between the sensitivities of race issues in the United States and emotions present in US relations with the non-European world. Reactions in both cases may seem illogical, but they are real.
Deep in the psyche of many peoples lie recollections of humiliating subordination. Such recollections may come from experience or traditions handed down through generations. In the African-American community, slavery is the defining force. In countries beyond Europe, those recollections are of colonial times or of Western domination - mandates in the Middle East or trade controls in China, for example. They occasion reminders of people being segregated, discriminated against, and exploited in their own lands. Against such backgrounds, words and actions, by governments or individuals, that appear to repeat attitudes of superiority are resented.
As people or countries deal with past humiliations, they seek to reestablish identities. Many white Americans wonder at the efforts of the African-American community to emphasize ties with Africa, often in ways that seem romantic or unrealistic, even to Africans. But both slavery and colonialism destroyed or damaged links with ancient cultural and religious traditions. As nations became independent, they put aside and often rebelled against Western traditions they felt had been imposed on them. They sought their own roots. So, too, have the descendants of slaves in America.
In both worlds, economic disparity has been another element that seems to perpetuate past domination and humiliation. Whether through foreign aid or inner-city programs, projects run by Europeans or white Americans have encountered resistance. For those abroad, aid motivated by cold-war considerations awakened echoes of colonial periods. Blacks in America's inner cities often resent outsiders who act like they know more about blacks' problems than they do.
Washington has frequently disapproved of unfriendly foreign leaders, demanding and, at times, engineering their removal. Americans have been puzzled when, especially in the case of despots, US disapproval has been seen as unwarranted outside interference. Similarly, in black America, criticism of African-American leadership by non-blacks is resented, even by those African-Americans who may themselves not support the chosen leadership. Community pride - like national pride - can be very strong.
Whether in America or abroad, news coverage of communities or nations is another frequent source of friction. African-Americans complain that the mainstream press emphasizes the role of blacks involved in crime, drugs, and poverty, over the accomplishments of the race. In the continuing dialogue between the industrial nations, with their domination of world news channels, and the developing nations, the portrayal of events in Latin America, Africa, and Asia has been seen as a perpetuation of cliches and stereotypes of a colonial past. The clash continues in the US and in the rest of the world between those who espouse freedom of the press and those who see that principle as a rationale for cultural domination and humiliation.
As with all generalizations, the validity of these comparisons varies among individuals and organizations. Proud achievers in the African-American community will not exhibit the same sensitivities as those in a ghetto. Differences in attitude - at least in degree - exist between the prospering nations of North Asia and the poorer nations of Africa or the troubled peoples of the Middle East. In both cases, attitudes are determined by geography, economic opportunity, and confident identities. Nevertheless, in every case, vestiges of past sensitivities can be found.
For those seeking to bridge the gap, a dilemma exists. How far does one go in responding to sensitivities? Overreaction can be seen as paternalism. Indifference can be seen as bigotry. The gap must be bridged; the alternative in both cases is tension and conflict. The bridging process must start with a recognition of the legacies of history on both sides.