Ferguson Incident and America’s Image in Africa: Social Media Weighs in on Race and Human Rights

The full story of the killing of Michael Brown, a young, black, unarmed man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, is still unfolding—and the truth will not be known for some time. It is only after full investigations are completed that an objective evaluation of the incident can be made. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the killing of the young man was unfortunate and has generated a serious debate about race relations in America, and on the relations between police and the communities that they are supposed to protect. The riots and massive looting portrayed not only the extent of criminality in America’s inner cities, but also the economic marginalization of the minority communities.

Coming not long after the successful U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington, the Ferguson incident and the follow-up demonstrations have been rather unfortunate in as far as how Africans view America—in a way questioning America’s standing as a protector of human rights. The hostility towards the United States in regard to its treatment of African-Americans has dominated social media with claims that the incident shows that America should not claim leadership when it comes to human rights. Such criticisms by many other countries, including Russia and China, are widespread.

I was particularly surprised by the comments in the Kenyan media coverage of this topic. Here are some statements on the topic by readers of the most popular paper there—the Daily Nation:

The US is a community fueled by hate. They claim not to be racist yet most of them are racist to the core including the black Americans. Yet they want to dictate and lecture us about human rights.”

Still waiting for GOK [Government of Kenya] to issue travel advisory to the U.S.”

(This is an apparent reference to the fact that the United States government issues travel advisories to countries like Kenya when such incidents occur and there are riots.)

Extra judicial killing. Let UN order an independent investigation & file handed to ICC (international Criminal Court) for prosecution of the culprits. US justice system is biased against its own black community.”

(The U.S. and human rights organizations have been critical of many countries for extra-judicial killings and have called for the prosecution of government officials in Africa at the International Criminal Court for such actions.)

U.S. preaches democracy and good governance all over the world but lo and behold, Ferguson has exposed the preacher who cannot take care of business in his backyard.”

Has the Kenyan ambassador issued a statement yet? The US must have a coalition government so as to end the violence. It will no longer be business as usual. We will have only necessary contact. Choices have consequences.”

(This statement is in reference to the U.S. government’s actions following the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya.)

In the USA, they give absolute rights to women, children and pets, the men are left on their own, owe [sic] un to you if you happen to be a young black man. You are as good as dead.”

Scanning media in other African countries, the same kind of reactions are evident. While some opinions differ, the general sentiment expressed in social media is that the United States remains a divided country and thus lacks moral authority to “lecture” Africans on human rights and tribalism.

To an extent, these sentiments expressed by Africans are misguided and are largely a gross exaggeration of the character of American society. The views expressed in the media portray an American society that is totally divided across racial lines, which Africans often equate to tribalism on their own continent. They see the economic desperation of many African-Americans as a reflection of a society that has continued to deny a large section of its people opportunities for advancement. All these views, right or wrong, weaken America’s standing among Africans and undermine the country’s ability to influence policy on human rights and governance in the continent. Such incidents give solace to dictators that undertake gross violations of human rights through extrajudicial killings. Many Africans consider the U.S. judicial system to be discriminatory against black men. They also cite biases in many previous cases of police killings of black men. The Zimmerman case in Florida is commonly used in the African media as an example of such incidents where they feel justice did not prevail.

But American global leadership in the advancement of human rights and ensuring equal protection under the law—and also in opening up opportunities for all groups—remains critically important. Through fair and transparent adjudication of the Ferguson case, the U.S. will be in a position to demonstrate to the Africans and others who have been critical of the state of affairs in this country that the U.S. remains a country governed by the rule of law. Still, the issue of poverty among some communities gives the U.S. a bad name as a country where a large segment of the population is economically marginalized. As the U.S. encourages Africans to build united and inclusive societies, it should be cognizant of the fact that its voice will carry more weight and be respected if Africans see the same happening in United States.