Should the United States acknowledge and openly lament the fact that white supremacy played a significant role in the country’s founding?
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Joe Biden’s pick as the US ambassador to the United Nations, thinks so. So does Biden himself. Both have spoken openly of their conviction that racism was woven into the fabric of American life when the nation first came together and persists today. Both envision the US as an imperfect union that constantly needs improvement and find it appropriate to declare this on the world stage.
Not so Nikki Haley, who served as Donald Trump’s UN ambassador from 2017 to 2018 and is preparing for a 2024 presidential run. To her, acknowledging national imperfections while representing the US at the UN constitutes an international embarrassment that gives succor to America’s foes.
“The Biden administration criticizing our country in front of the world’s worst human rights abusers & oppressive regimes is a win for our enemies,” Haley tweeted on April 15 in a slap at a recent speech by Thomas-Greenfield. “America is the freest, fairest country in the world. We shouldn’t have trouble saying that.”
At this point in time, I hope we can all agree that America’s racist roots are no secret, particularly if you used to live in South Carolina, a member of the Confederacy and the first state to secede from the Union. Along with America’s “enemies,” Haley surely must be aware that while the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” its main author, Thomas Jefferson, enslaved people, as did a majority of the declaration’s signers. Historians say that four of the first five American presidents and nearly half of the delegates to the Philadelphia convention that drafted the Constitution in 1787 also enslaved people.
The original US Constitution included a provision that slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person, to sweeten the deal for pro-slavery Southern states by giving them extra representation in the House of Representatives and extra votes in the Electoral College. Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 barred the new nation’s legislature from outlawing the importation of slaves by 1808 but allowed it to impose a tax or duty of up to $10 on each person so imported. And in Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, Southerners obtained the inclusion of a fugitive slave provision designed to encourage the return of runaways who sought refuge in free states.
Haley, of course, had no foreign policy experience and little or no desire to gain any when she was offered the UN ambassadorship, although she had served three terms in South Carolina’s House of Representatives and was twice elected the state governor. When Trump first asked if she wanted the job, she said she was uncertain about it until her husband, Michael, began “surfing around the Web” to conduct quick research on the UN and urged her to “take a look” at the post.
Thomas-Greenfield, on the other hand, is a senior US diplomat and a Black woman, so it might not be too surprising that she would take public note of some of the more unsavory aspects of US history. Her great-grandmother Mary Thomas, born in 1865, was the child of a slave, she said in an April 14 speech. “I grew up in the segregated South. I was bussed to a segregated school. On weekends, the Klan burned crosses on lawns in our neighborhood.”
To Thomas-Greenfield, there were several good reasons to raise ugly domestic matters as part of the conduct of international diplomacy, she said in her April 14 speech, delivered at a virtual conference of the National Action Network, a civil rights group founded in 1991. This kind of thinking keeps Americans grounded by reminding them of their own country’s imperfections. And it encourages people around the world to work together to solve their problems by reminding them that they face many of the same challenges.
She spoke publicly on the world stage of her own experience with racial discrimination, she told the group, “to acknowledge . . . that I have personally experienced one of America’s greatest imperfections. I have seen for myself how the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.”
“Of course, when we raise issues of equity and justice at the global scale, we have to approach them with humility,” she said. “We have to acknowledge that we are an imperfect union — and have been since the beginning — and every day we strive to make ourselves more perfect, and more just.” (She also spoke at the UN about racism on the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, below, on March 25.)
Haley was not the only Trumpista to be irked by Thomas-Greenfield’s words. Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state from 2018 to 2021, urged her to resign over her remarks.
“[T]o have our American ambassador to the United Nations denigrate the founding principles of the United States and America the way that she did this week is truly reprehensible, and, in my view, if she truly believes that, she ought to resign and allow someone who believes in the greatness of the United States of America to take her place,” he said in an interview on WABC radio. “[F]rankly, I think it’s disqualifying to have a UN Ambassador who expresses a moral relativism and doesn’t understand the exceptional nature of the country in which we all live.”
This is Pompeo speaking, widely described as the worst secretary of state in US history and, like Haley, eyeing a presidential run in 2024. Recently, he was accused of violating federal ethics rules on the use of taxpayer-financed resources for personal gain while working as the top US diplomat.
So does President Biden, Thomas-Greenfield’s boss, feel she should resign, or perhaps just shut up? Here’s what he said in May 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis: “The original sin of this country still stains our nation today, and sometimes we manage to overlook it.”
“None of us can turn away. None of us can be silent,” Biden added.
“Black Americans, and Black men in particular, have been treated throughout the course of our history as less than human,” Kamala Harris, the vice president, said on April 20, after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering Floyd. “Black men are fathers. And brothers. And sons. And uncles. And grandfathers. And friends. And neighbors.”
One of Haley’s favorite tactics at the UN was threatening to use US financial clout to silence America’s critics. If a UN member was poised to vote against what she saw as a national interest, she would threaten to cut off any US aid. If a UN agency or program did something that displeased her, she would threaten to cut off its funding or withdraw Washington from membership.
Examples of this type of behavior included quitting the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, the Paris climate agreement, the Human Rights Council, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and Unesco. As a result, you didn’t hear much public criticism of Washington at the UN during Trump’s years in the White House. What you saw instead was an abysmally low rate of diplomatic success — and a lot of private grumbling.
These days, Haley’s venom is limited to conservative media interviews, paid speeches and frequent emails from her tax-exempt foundation, Stand for America, hammering away at the usual Trump targets: socialists, China, political correctness and allegations that “our nation is systemically racist.”
Once taking office on Jan. 20, Biden wasted no time beginning to reverse US behavior on the global stage. It shouldn’t take long to see whether the policy shift ends up simply strengthening Washington’s enemies, as Haley and Pompeo warn, or perhaps pays diplomatic dividends.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.