Broadening Our Conversations

08/19/2011 02:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

We have decided to create this blog as a means of broadening our conversations about black politics globally defined and its relationship to contemporary issues of racism, immigration, citizenship and nationalism.

As academics who have studied these and related issues, we consider the present moment in the United States an opportunity to relate some of our scholarly preoccupations with real world concerns and in ways not normally covered by either mainstream or alternative news outlets. We will use this space to draw parallels and make connections between these themes and hopefully to draw others into a wide-ranging conversation. We have been both astonished and frustrated over the years by the isolationist cast of much commentary about the black experience in the United States and racism more generally as an international, rather than national phenomenon.

The idea of American exceptionalism has been around for a long time. Most recently, Barack Obama was criticized for acknowledging the "special" role the U.S. has to play in the world without uttering the word "exceptional." There are several ways in which we can think of the U.S. as an exceptional national society and government, and there are ways in which we can consider the U.S. alongside many other national societies with histories similar to ours. Most would point to innovations in education, technology, medicine, sports and popular culture as part of its "exceptional" side. Others would point to its history of imperialism, war-making, slavery and colonialism as part of its not so exceptional side, the parts of its history that resemble the histories of powerful European nation-states as well as ancient empires. These two aspects of the United States, historically and in the present moment, have been difficult for most U.S. based commentators, politicians and activists, to reconcile.

As we think about the present moment in U.S. history and politics, several recent events in the world come to mind. The recent mass murders in Norway reminds us of how "crazed individuals" acting upon their beliefs represent not just individual attitudes and behaviors but more widely held sentiments articulated by an international network of racist, conspiratorial organizations that disseminate their ideologies and reproduce their practices across national boundaries. Timothy McVeigh anyone? How about Eric Rudolph? The Tea Party movement, though not a political party in its own right, shares some political characteristics with the National Front in France and Britain, and right-wing nationalist movements in places like Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.

Political and economic crisis, demographic shifts in a national population, and the "downgrade" of a nation-state's status as a world power become part of the seasoning in a stew of right-wing resentment, transforming otherwise unrelated elements into populist/authoritarian mobilization. Majority populations in these and other countries have struggled with the cultural, political and economic implications of societies that have gotten darker. In the United States and elsewhere, right-wing populist movements utilize charged, racist rhetoric which they invariably disavow when it finds its way into the mouths and minds of people with violent actions.

In this sense at least, the U.S. does not stand alone. At a time when the fortunes -- literally and figuratively -- of the United States have clearly shifted, we would do well to think more about the United States comparatively in relation to other nation-states that have struggled at home and abroad with their place in the world.

Michael Hanchard, Dept. of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, Director of Racism, Immigration and Citizenship; Mark Sawyer, Dept. of Political Science, UCLA, Director of The Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.