Perspective: First Lady’s Spain Trip Stirs Up Reflections of America’s Past

It seemed surprising that two days before first lady Michelle Obama’s recent visit to Spain, the U.S. State Department removed a warning on its website that stated, “We have received isolated reports that racial prejudice may have contributed to the arrest or detention of some African-Americans traveling in Spain.”

Someone must have grasped the incongruity of the State Department having such a statement on its website when the African-American wife of the first African-American president of the United States was about to arrive in Spain.

The presence of such language on the State Department website should not surprise any minority in this country or any person of a darker hue who has traveled here. Perhaps, a historical perspective about the United States and its treatment of African-Americans and darker-skinned foreigners, especially by the State Department, would be helpful.

In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney used the refusal of the State Department to issue passports to Blacks as evidence that they were not regarded as citizens. Then, Blacks could only travel abroad if they received certificates of residence in the U.S. Taney used the State Department’s policy to deny citizenship to Dred Scott. The Chief Justice reasoned that since a passport recognizes the bearer as a citizen of the United States and Blacks could not get passports, they were not citizens.

In 1997, Judge Stanley Sporkin of the U.S. District Court in Washington ruled that the United States’ visa policies, developed and implemented by the State Department, were discriminatory. The ruling was prompted by a lawsuit that had been brought by a Harvard-educated lawyer who, when serving as a consul officer in Sao Paolo, Brazil, was fired because he refused to follow a policy that resulted in denials of U.S. entry visas because the applicants were of African, Asian and Arab descents.

Sporkin wrote that the visa policies “instruct visa officials to rely heavily upon factors such as physical appearance and national origin when adjudicating the applications.”  He elaborated by saying the “principle that government must not discriminate against particular individuals because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth means that the use of generalizations based on these factors is unfair and unjustified.”  He further cited a visa manual used in the Sao Paolo U.S. Consulate that encouraged special scrutiny of applicants of Korean or Chinese ancestry — “visas are rarely issued to these groups,” the manual said.  Further, statistics showed that visa applicants from certain Brazilian cities that have predominantly Black populations had a disproportionately high rate of denial.

Discrimination exists everywhere, including Spain, despite its proximity to northern Africa and the darker skinned Moors’ influence in its history. I was in France in early July to see a stage of the Tour de France. A glimpse of Alberto Contador, who won his second consecutive Tour this year, showed he is a darker-skinned Spaniard whom the U.S. news media largely ignored as they focused on seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong. 

Some years ago, during a visit to a university in Northern Ireland, I was fascinated as officials grappled with the invisible line that divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods as they worked to develop and apply “affirmative action” policies to ensure “equal access” for students of both religions. To my ears, the familiar terms were jarring when applied to White people in a White country.

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico touch Cuba and Mexico. However, news stories in the United States about the oil spill rarely mention the effects on those two countries as well as repercussions for the Caribbean nations. Could it be that the colors of the majority of the peoples in the countries around the Gulf of Mexico influence the U.S. broadcast media?

After having traveled in southern Africa for seven years when I lived in Zambia and worked for Africare, (which was founded by African-Americans) and then traveling the world as an international educator and visiting universities in over 60 countries, I have decided that the most important experience for students of color is to travel outside the United States. Only then will young people gain a depth of understanding and empathy for others, observe and respect cultural differences and learn to listen to problems that cross national boundaries. The human “race” is facing enormous issues, such as disease, poverty and armed conflict, which can only be solved by collective action across national, racial and ethnic boundaries.

The United States has a marvelous opportunity demonstrate to the world that in diversity there is strength. This country was forged, too often with violence, by people from all over the world, including Native Americans. Amazingly, the president and his family are African-Americans. “Strength in diversity” is the example the United States should offer the world. While discrimination exists everywhere, we can handle it because we have to deal with it at home, often on a daily basis. 

Go to Spain. It is a gorgeous country with friendly people. We also know that friendly people are everywhere. As educators, let us encourage all young people, especially those from minority groups, to travel abroad for part of their education, learn a language, meet those friendly people and be friendly and respectful in return. Today’s students are the face of the United States and the world needs to meet them in all their diversity. I hope Obama, her daughter and her friends had a great time in Spain.

Karen Jenkins is the executive director of the African Studies Association (ASA).