Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988

By Brenda Gayle Plummer | Go to book overview

Seen from the Outside
The International Perspective
on America's Dilemma
PAUL GORDON LAUREN

There are times in life when others may see us far better from the outside than we see ourselves from within. They can apply a certain objectivity, distance, broader perspective, freshness, and honesty that we are not always able or willing to produce on our own. They can often see through the rationalizations, excuses, self-willed naiveté, or myths that we create about ourselves. Sometimes they are free to speak out when we feel compelled by social conformity or existing power to remain silent. For these reasons, outsiders can often perceptively evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, including the level of commitment we have to our stated values, based not on our words but rather on our actions. This can happen when we are examined as individuals as well as groups. It can occur when foreign observers, like the Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal, view the broader character, values, and behavior of our nation as a whole.

Outside observers have long been fascinated with America. Its experiments with the principles and practices of freedom in a new land attracted foreign attention from the very beginning. 1 Outsiders came to see—and to scrutinize—the emerging nation, its people, and their values. One of the greatest and shrewdest of these was Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville, who took full advantage of his foreign status, was simultaneously descriptive, analytical, complimentary, critical, and prophetic, seeing qualities in the nineteenthcentury United States that many others either missed or chose to ignore. 2 Given his powers of observation, his honesty, and his concern with humanity, it is hardly surprising that Tocqueville's insightful analysis, De la démocratie en Amérique, would quickly fix upon the problem of race. Indeed, an entire chapter devoted to this subject began with these cautionary words: “The absolute supremacy of democracy is not all that we meet with in America.” Tocqueville described the superior position and power accorded to “the white or European” and the blatant subjugation imposed upon “the Negro and the Indian.” “Both of them,” he observed, “occupy an inferior rank in the country they inhabit; both suffer from tyranny.” Struck by the striking anom-

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