Q&A: Nourhan Fahmy, International Race and Rights Lab

Author: Kevin Fye

Nourhan Fahmy
Nourhan Fahmy

Nourhan Fahmy is an Egyptian researcher and journalist who focuses on legal and judicial issues, and serves as a research assistant in the International Race and Rights Lab at the Klau Institute. Nourhan has worked for Egypt-based news outlets including Daily News EgyptAswat Masriya, and Mada Masr, and as a Bassem Sabry Democracy Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, she conducted research on Egyptian judicial affairs. Nourhan is currently a master of global affairs student at the Keough School, and is the recipient of a Samuel and Kathleen Awad Global Affairs Fellowship.


What in your personal or professional experience led you to be interested in issues around race and international rights?

Given my career as a socio-legal researcher and journalist, I am interested in issues related to civil rights and freedoms as well as rule of law more broadly. As an international student in the US, I was motivated to embark on this research project as it addresses racial rights and equality and their intersection with global power struggles. This interdisciplinary angle is quite important to understand how discourses on human rights vary from one state to another and between regions, and how they can be utilized towards different ends.


What project are you working on with the International Race and Rights Lab?

Under professor Zoltan Buzas's supervision and guidance, our methodology is to review news articles and foreign ministry press reports from China and code them according to pre-set criteria that attempt to evaluate how Chinese officials—as represented by mainstream media—view race relations and human rights in the US. The ultimate goal is to analyze race relations using an international lens, as the subject of race in the US is often times approached purely through a domestic lens.


How does your contribution fit in with the larger goals of the project?

At first, the research methodology and the sources used (in this case Chinese media publications) were new to me. Before long, however, the process of reading and coding articles became a bit easier and faster as I become more familiar as a researcher with the criteria used for coding, and I began to approach the work with that initial mindset.

My work, along with other researchers in this project, will contribute rigorous quantitative data based on hundreds of news articles and officials statements to a wider research project on Race, Rights, and Great Power Politics. This project examines criticisms of the US over civil rights, and more recently Black Lives Matter, coming from China, the Soviet Union, and later Russia.


Do you, personally, see any patterns emerging in your research? Have you been able to draw any broad conclusions based on the work so far?

I think after coding close to 500 articles from various Chinese outlets, I can definitely draw some broad conclusions about the ways in which Chinese state-controlled media approach the subject of racial equality and human rights in the US. It is a discourse that focuses on the hypocrisy and double standards exercised by the US in its proclamations regarding its superior human rights record compared to the other countries' shortcomings and failures. This discourse is then substantiated by incidents of racial violence, human rights violations committed by the US, violence of the police against protests, etc.

There is also a focus on a lack of self-accountability in the US as violations persist without adequate self-assessment or retributive measures. I have also observed another prominent claim in these news articles, that the human rights discourse is politicized by the US to realize other hegemonic and global superpower objectives.


Has anything in this work surprised you?

I was surprised by the extent of consistency and repetition of such messages in Chinese media over the past few years (articles coded were mostly from 2016 until the present). Almost all incidents of racial violence, BLM protests, and cases of police violence, are approached in a similar manner. They highlight the impunity of state officials (police) in cases where they were not indicted in attacks against African Americans and other minority groups, and characterize this impunity as a historical attribute of the US. The chaos and violence during and after BLM protests is also a consistent theme.


What would you like to see as an outcome of the lab’s work? Do you feel there could be policy implications?

I hope this research will broaden people's perspectives on race relations in the US and elsewhere by incorporating other analytical dimensions and lenses of inquiry. It may also add nuance to the traditional approach to the subject of race relations in the US.

From a policy perspective, US officials, especially those in the State Department, need to be aware of and understand the implications of such consistent messaging by Chinese and Russian state-controlled media, and how to respond to it. It also highlights the need for a more present and critical take by mainstream US media outlets on the issue of race relations, so as not to become an extreme antithetical version of media in countries like China where freedom of expression and opinion is much more curtailed in comparison to the US.