George Zimmerman and the U.S. effort to improve minority rights abroad

July 14, 2013

George Zimmerman, with his attorneys, Mark O'Mara (L) and Don West, stands to be identified by state witness Chris Serino, a Sanford police officer, during his testimony in Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court July 1, 2013 in Sanford, Fla. (Photo by Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images)

Every spring, the U.S. State Department releases a comprehensive report on human rights abuses around the world. It examines allies and adversaries alike, recording everything from minor religious freedom violations and corruption problems to genocides and dictatorships. The idea is to document for the sake of documenting, but also to put the considerable power and prestige of the United States behind calling attention to abuses, shaming the abusers and, hopefully, pressuring for some kind of change.

Also every spring, usually not too long after the State Department's report comes out, China releases its own report on human rights in the United States. An often-hyperbolic account of minor incidents within the United States as well America's more serious problems, the document is not ambiguous in its mission. As the report concluded in its section on firearm violence in the U.S., "Gun shootings in America are unceasing, how is it qualified to talk about human rights?"

It's a long tradition in China to deflect U.S. criticism of its human rights abuses by pointing to America's own problems. But it's not just China, and it's not just in response to official government pronouncements. Around the world, whenever the U.S. government, an American NGO or an American journalist calls attention to some form of human rights abuse, there is a decent chance that someone will fire back with a similar American misdeed. That can seem to happen most frequently when it comes to issues involving racial minorities. And one name that Americans seeking to improve life for racial minorities abroad can now expect to hear spat back at them is George Zimmerman.

I am simply not qualified to say whether the death of Trayvon Martin last February or the acquittal of Zimmerman late Saturday have anything to do with race. But I can predict with great certainty that you will read about the case in China's next report on human rights in the U.S., and that many others will use it to dodge U.S. criticism of their own countries' treatment of racial minorities.

On the surface this would seem inconsequential. Of course Beijing will counter American criticism, of course hostile leaders will seize on any excuse to attack the U.S., of course countries that don't want or aren't able to improve minority rights will look for excuses. But the point is less what foreign leaders will say than what the foreign citizens to whom those leaders are accountable will actually believe. People, whatever their nationality, don't like to feel condescended to by the U.S., and the temptation is always strong to dismiss painful criticism as hypocritical, driven not by concern for racial minorities but by some American imperialistic desire to control the world.

One reason this can be so tricky is that the United States' racial history is well known abroad, but there's room for people to interpret it as a generally negative story or a positive one. An American friend who has long worked in Nigeria told me that many people there hold broadly positive views of the U.S.'s treatment of African-Americans today but that the memory of slavery lingers. A Chinese friend who is a product of Beijing schools recounted classroom debates on Martin Luther King, Jr.: did his victories represent the U.S. at its best, or were his struggles evidence of the U.S. at its worst? Is the country to be admired for its racial politics or condemned – and, by implication, listened to or ignored? Zimmerman, though acquitted in the U.S., may find his name, whether fairly or unfairly, added to the evidence list of those who would like a reason to resist American pressure to protect racial minorities in their countries.

No one is arguing that the American justice system should be prejudiced by a ruling's potential implications for America's image abroad. And, of course, it does not logically follow that, for example, an American NGO worker should have a tougher time convincing Burmese Buddhist groups not to terrorize ethnic Rohingya just because that NGO worker happens to come from a country that is perceived as having less than perfect racial politics itself. Nor is it quite rational for, say, Japanese nationalists to persuade fellow citizens that American news articles about Japan's mistreatment of Koreans are invalid because the U.S. has its own problems. But it does happen.

Still, it is important to note that, because of America's unique position in the world, the question of whether it is perceived as good on racial-minority rights or bad on racial-minority rights can have real implications for any international efforts to improve minority rights. That doesn't mean that Americans should reach any particular conclusions in the already-raging debate over the role of race in Martin's death and Zimmerman's trial. But it is a reminder that this debate matters beyond the United States as well as within it.

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Max Fisher | July 13, 2013