Royal troubles cast shadow over William and Kate’s US tour

<span>Photograph: Brian Snyder/EPA</span>
Photograph: Brian Snyder/EPA

The Prince and Princess of Wales returned to Britain on Saturday after a three-day US trip that combined messaging, friendship-politicking and symbolism accented with celebrity name-checks.

But the trip, as carefully scripted as any, may also have missed an opportunity to tackle immediate domestic issues. Eight years ago, William and Kate were greeted by adoring crowds. The crowds were out again this week “but this time around it’s more tempered and more complicated”, says Arianne Chernock, professor of history at Boston University, who has written widely on the role of the British royal family in America.

Those issues – a royal racism row triggered by William’s godmother, Lady Hussey at a Buckingham Palace reception on gender-based violence, and the drop of an ominous Netflix trailer previewing Harry and Meghan’s new reality docuseries, Harry and Meghan – on top of longstanding claims by the Sussexes of racial insensitivity within the palace walls – gave the visit a complex overlay for many Americans.

The New York Times called the Waleses’ visit “A Royal Visit, at a Careful Distance”, and two days later wrote: “Bostonians’ Take on the Royals’ Whirlwind Visit? Whatevah”. The Washington Post headlined the story: “Racism uproar at home threatens to eclipse royal visit to US”. On Saturday, the Boston Globe declared approvingly: “Royals, and Biden, and Beckham – Oh my!” The city, it said, “truly became the hub of the universe”.

The headlines reflected conflicting and often generationally divided interpretations of the royal brand in the US. Some of that could be ascribed to the Sussexes. At the time of the Waleses’ last visit, in 2014, Harry and Meghan hadn’t even met, Chernock notes. “Now we have a new couple who have created an element of surprise and volatility.”

The long history of British royals coming to America, from King George VI’s trip to see FDR in June 1939 – to shore up support as a war with Nazi Germany loomed – to Queen Elizabeth II on horseback with Ronald Reagan, and Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta is typically laden with diplomatic messaging.

Highlights of this trip included Caroline Kennedy, now US ambassador to Australia, acting as William’s guide – an endorsement in act and spirit from a complicated family closest to being considered US royalty – at the JFK library on Friday. Later, the Waleses arrived at an Earthshot environmental initiative award ceremony in an electric car, the princess in a $100 green dress and hand-me-down necklace. Earlier, President Biden had welcomed the couple, and shared, according to a spokesperson, “warm memories of Her Majesty”.

The complications of this visit, Chernock says, “are not what William and Kate are doing – it’s everything that’s happening around them that makes it harder to move through these pre-determined roles and schedules and requires a new degree of savvy and humility that perhaps the royal family is not accustomed to”.

Still, Chernock said, the couple “have been received with great enthusiasm because they have demonstrated just how serious they are about a number of issues that really resonate with multiple publics”.

While a spokesperson for the Prince of Wales stated that Hussey’s comments were unacceptable and that “racism has no place in our society”, the latest racially tinged blow-up called for the Waleses to address it directly, Chernock says.

“Obviously, William and Kate did not make the remarks but they can’t just brush it under the rug because it’s not a one-off. There’s a desire on the part of Americans for more candour, a more robust response – and to show willingness to lead on issues of racial justice that keep coming up.”

But that could just as easily be turned into an opportunity for the couple to “demonstrate they are going to take a stronger stand on these issues and set a new tone”. Without the couple seeking to put down markers of a generational divide, they’d be “continuing a pattern where silence means something and that becomes equated with complicity”.

Despite the increasingly public spat between the Waleses and Sussexes, conducted(as their parents had done) through royal “sources” as well as the release of the Netflix trailer, the values that the two couples champion – environmental and racial justice – are closely intertwined. “William and Kate’s agenda doesn’t need to be at odds with Harry and Meghan’s. In fact they’re very much aligned,” says Chernock. But with the Sussexes staked out in California, they are “an additional dimension the Waleses need to be aware of, but not actively manage, when they come to America”.

The pride that many in the US felt that an American woman was marrying into the British royal family is now tinged with a sense of protectiveness that Meghan had been wronged. “That lends to a sense of wariness about others in the family,” Chernock said.

Still, she added, the resonances of last week’s visit were fascinating. “It’s unfortunate that the more the press forwards the narrative of a war, the more they’re doing a disservice to the royal family but also to the issues that are of global import.”