Updated: Jun 8
In August 1957, a Federal District Court ordered the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to allow nine African American students to attend class and rid itself of segregation guidelines. Across the south, there was an uproar at the thought of white and black students sitting together, in the same classrooms, under the same teachers. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus made clear he would not follow or enforce ruling, and in fact swore to fight it, both in court and on the streets.
When the students attempted to enter the school on September 4, 1957, they were greeted by hundreds of angry whites and at least two hundred National Guardsmen who had been activated by Faubus to prevent the students entry onto the school's premises. The students were forced to leave, with onlookers shouting, "n****** go home" and "back to where you come from, n******." For his actions, Faubus received acclaim across the south and political power at home. The next day, pictures of terrified African-American children surrounded by the mob of adults and Guardsmen were plastered on the front pages of newspapers across the world.
What started as a domestic crisis over civil rights quickly evolved into a foreign policy disaster for the United States of America. Within hours of the incident, the Soviet Union seized upon the opportunity to paint America as two-faced. On one side, the communist nation declared, the United States proclaimed it supported democracy and equality in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. On the other, the nation subjected its own minorities to countless horrors. Political and Psychological Warfare operations being conducted by the Americans in the new "third world" countries were severely harmed, and partner nations in the African continent were at risk of switching sides to the Soviets. Even staunch allies of the United States, such as the United Kingdom and France, threatened to turn against the Land of the Free in the United Nations.
Cognizant that the Arkansas situation threatened America's position on the international stage, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered 1,000 soldier from the 101st Airborne Division to guard the students as they went about their studies at the High School for the remainder of the year. In an address to the nation on September 24, 1957, he called for the restoration of law and order, and threatened strong action if the mob continued to interfere with a court order. He further went on to state that segregation was a blight on the image of the United States in the midst of its conflict with the Soviets, “We are portrayed as a violator of those standards of conduct which the peoples of the world united to proclaim in the Charter of the United Nations. There they affirmed ‘faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person’ and they did so ‘without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion."
Today, the United States has overcome the vast majority of its racial issues, and Americans now stand side-by-side together as one. Thus, it is extremely difficult for foreign powers to use racial discriminations to injure the superpower's foreign policy. For the People's Republic of China, however, that is not so.
China has put an immense amount of time and resources into developing relationships and partnerships on the African continent. Underscoring this fact, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) constructed its first overseas naval base in Djibouti for the cost of $590,000,000. The People's Republic views Africa as an investment for the future. Mining investments in Africa account for nearly 1/3rd of China's total foreign direct investment, or FDI, in African nations. This base of critical raw materials, and growing marketplace, allows China to strengthen its economy for decades to come. With benefits for both sides, the growing strategic alliance between African states and the Chinese government seemed unbreakable, at least until recently.
Across Africa, Chinese ambassadors are being hauled into foreign ministries to justify videos that have gone viral on social media platforms of African immigrants and workers being kicked out of apartments, refused entry into hotels, and strong-armed by security forces in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda are among the most outspoken in demanding explanations from the Chinese government for mistreatment of Africans in its territory. Western nations have also been quick to capitalize on China's domestic situation, with the United States, United Kingdom, and France putting pressure on Beijing to resolve the situation. Nigeria's speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Remi Gbajabiamila, even released a video of him scolding the Chinese ambassador to the nation.
The City of Guangzhou has the highest number of Africans in China, with well over 300,000 regularly passing through when entering or leaving. Accusations of racism aren't new for the city, according to Ilaria Carrozza, a project coordinator at Oslo’s Peace Research Institute who specialized in China-Africa relations. The backlash, however, has been amplified due to African leaders raising their concerns “explicitly and bluntly.”
Most likely, this racial discrimination will have an impact on Chinese relations with the continent. The extent of the damage, however, remains to be seen.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.