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Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Reckless Moral Equivalency

New U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield holds a news conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York, March 1, 2021. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Does Linda Thomas-Greenfield understand the purpose of, and duties associated with, her position as United States ambassador to the United Nations? I’m sure she has her own conception of the job, and it’s her right to act on the basis of that conception; she’s the one who’s been selected for and confirmed to the role. But judging from her recent comments made while addressing Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, I don’t think that conception bears much resemblance to that which Americans have of her mission:

Of course, when we raise issues of equity and justice at the global scale, we have to approach them with humility. 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. In a diverse country like ours, that means committing to do the work. It means learning and understanding more about each other. It means engaging trailblazing groups like yours, to teach, to grow, to include, to improve. It means not forgetting our past or ignoring our present, but keeping both firmly in mind as we push for a better future. I tried to do this recently in the U.N. General Assembly when I spoke on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Thomas-Greenfield shared a few moving examples of the horror that she and other African Americans experienced in the Jim Crow South before going on:

I’ve seen for myself how the original sin of slavery weaved  white supremacy into our founding documents and principles . . .

. . . Racism is not the problem of the racist. And it is the problem of the society that produces the racist. And in today’s world, that’s every society. In America, that takes many forms. It’s the white supremacy that led to the senseless killing of George Floyd. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other black Americans. It’s the spike in hate crimes over the past three years against Latino Americans, Sikh, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans,  and immigrants. And it’s the bullying, discrimination, brutality, and violence that Asian Americans face every day,  especially since the outbreak of COVID-19. That’s why the Biden-Harris administration has made racial equity a top priority across the entire government. And I’m making it a real focus of my tenure at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

But when I say racism is a problem in every society, that means looking beyond America’s borders too. Across four decades and four continents in the foreign service, I experienced racism in countless international contexts. From overly invasive searches at airports, to police racially profiling my son, to being made to wait behind white patrons for a table at a restaurant. Racism was and continues to be a daily challenge abroad. And for millions, it’s more than a challenge. It’s deadly.

Like in Burma, where Rohingya and others have been oppressed, abused, and killed in staggering numbers. Or in China, where the government has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups. The prevalence — and pervasiveness — of racism and racial inequality might make the situation look hopeless.

So, let me be clear: I remain hopeful. I remain hopeful in part because of the influence and the insistence of organizations like yours.

There’s quite a lot to unpack here. Can a group headed by Al “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house” Sharpton be considered a “trailblazing” vehicle for racial progress in this country? Probably not. Is white supremacy, as an amorphous force, woven into our founding documents and principles? No, quite the opposite.

However, the most important question is this: Why did Thomas-Greenfield believe these to be appropriate remarks to make given her day job?  There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that America is an imperfect union — self-evident though it is — but why is a high-profile American diplomat so myopically concentrated on enumerating and exaggerating her own country’s failings? The vast majority of Thomas-Greenfield’s speech was devoted to this task. Worse yet, she failed to distinguish between the progress we’ve made and the horrific regression that’s easily observable in China, America’s chief geopolitical rival. Comparing the U.S.’s failure to wholly rid itself of bigotry to the genocide being prosecuted in China is both morally obtuse and strategically ill-advised. Chinese propagandists already try to use racial divisions and disparities in this country to deflect from the mass atrocities their government is perpetrating. It is all but assured that they will use Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks against the country she’s paid to represent.

I’m sure that the ambassador does not in her heart believe the U.S. to be morally comparable to the People’s Republic of China. But her words — presumably chosen to align with the Biden administration’s domestic agenda, rather than to serve the U.S.’s interests — did not reflect any distinction between the two powers’ sins. Such recklessness will have real repercussions, and should not inspire any confidence in her ability to lead at the U.N. There’s nothing that the cadre of dictators, butchers, and human-rights abusers that populate its halls covet more than an apologetic American in their midst.

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