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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


International Politics and Civil Rights Policies in the United States, 1941-1960
Azza Salama Layton

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000
217pp. Index. Hb.: 12.95; ISBN 0-521-66976-6. Hb.: 35.00; ISBN 0-521-66002-5



Recent protests at WTO and IMF meetings highlight a trend that few scholars have focused upon in the past decade, that is, the linkages between international politics and protest movements. Layton synthesizes these two disparate theoretical perspectives to illuminate US race politics.

Layton offers precise mechanisms which link the international and domestic political spheres. She develops an international dimension to the concept of "opportunity structure," a core component of social movement theory. Anti-communist ideology during the Cold War, for example, framed the discourse of the US debate about racism. Consequently, some policies became more desirable -- or costly -- as weapons in the competition between the US and Soviet Union over newly-independent states in the Third World, the leaders of which cared about racial discrimination, both in principle and because it affected them personally during visits to the US.

After laying out the theoretical reasons for thinking that the Cold War might influence the civil rights agenda, Layton systemically addresses alternative explanations to highlight the gaps in the civil rights story that can best be explained by taking international context seriously. First she demonstrates that black activists in the US saw themselves as operating in an international arena, not solely a domestic one. Leaders went to the United Nations, for example, to raise the question of racial discrimination, linking US policies and practices to broader critiques of colonialism. That is, they used this discursive framework to make transnational allies and to generate international pressures on the US government.

The next piece of her puzzle revolves around whether US policy-makers took these pressures into account, and if so, the extent to which they changed policy as a result. Here Layton deftly separates the question of effect into component parts that can be distinguished from the predictions of alternative explanations. For example, she uses State Department correspondence to illustrate both that the federal government was aware of international criticisms and that various branches of the government heeded these concerns. Furthermore, she disaggregates US civil rights policy to demonstrate that international pressures motivated changes in only some areas -- those most visible to outside critics -- but not necessarily the ones that domestic critics cared about the most.

The result of this superb research design and archival work is an important reinterpretation of the US civil rights story. Scholars interested in social movements, international relations, US politics, race relations and human rights should read this excellent book.


Audie Klotz, University of Illinois at Chicago



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