The West has a role in reimagining the U.S.

Our notion of ‘American exceptionalism’ has collapsed. What will replace it?

I was not yet born in October 1968, when U.S. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200-meter dash. As The Star-Spangled Banner played over the loudspeakers inside the Mexico City stadium, the two men bowed their heads, and each raised a black-gloved fist to the sky. They stood shoeless on the podium, wearing black socks to protest Black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent Black pride.

“If I win, I am an American, not a Black American,” Smith said during a press conference afterwards. “But if I did something bad, then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are Black, and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

For their gesture, both Smith and Carlos were thrown off the U.S. Olympic team, but they became instant heroes for many of us around the developing world. Their salute to the Black Power movement amid the ongoing civil rights struggle and the rising death toll of the Vietnam War, their silent protest, spoke to me years later, when I was still a child. I grew up in Venezuela, in a society that liked to define itself as “post-racial,” even though your neighborhood and the color of your skin made you a target for the cops, deprived you of opportunities, increased the chance you’d die young. Today, I’m an adult living in the United States, where the raised Black fist is now omnipresent, even commodified, marking everything from T-shirts to mugs.


“What does it mean?” our daughter, who is 7, asked recently. I showed her the old photo of Smith and Carlos and tried to explain about the Black Panthers, the history of civil rights in this country, about Black Lives Matter and how, eight years ago, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a stranger as he walked home from a convenience store. I told her how a white police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, even as Floyd repeated, “I can’t breathe” and “Mama.”

These are not easy conversations to have with a Latina girl living in Arizona, a land marked by centuries of conquest, land grabs and dispossession.

But I knew that if not today, sometime in the future — and for the rest of her life — my daughter would encounter anti-Blackness and understand how it defies the myth of the Land of the Free. She will come to know that there is no such thing as the American Dream, only a state that continues to disinvest from its own people amid growing inequality. And she will have to learn to navigate anger and despair alongside hope. I say “hope,” because the latest uprisings may yet prove that sustained rebellion can change minds — even change our world. But what will that change bring? If the story of America isn’t one of “liberty and justice for all,” then what is it? And what could it become?

This nation is experiencing a profound moment of unexceptionalism. By late April, almost three months after the first known COVID-19 death was reported in the U.S., the disease had claimed more American lives than two decades of the Vietnam War. As of this writing, more than 119,923 people in the U.S. have died according to available data.

A man raises his fist in solidarity with some 500 individuals who had come together during an early June vigil organized by the NAACP calling for an end to police brutality.

The Western U.S., where I have lived a good part of my adult life, reflects a stark inequality. In Clark County, Nevada, to give one example, almost one-fifth of those who have died from the disease were Black, even though Black residents make up just a little over one-eighth of the countys population. In Colorado, Latino residents have been equally hard-hit, making up almost one-third of COVID-19 cases. The five highest rates of infection in the U.S. are found in Western tribal nations, according to a study by the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA.  

Such disparities took root in the West generations ago. First, white settlers conjured Manifest Destiny to justify the killing and forced removal of Indigenous peoples and the theft of their lands. Then, a war with Mexico preceded a major land acquisition, setting the stage for another kind of racism, against Hispanics and Latinos. The Great Migration and World War II’s industrialization brought Black Americans into the West, where they continued to face discrimination. Black Westerners are more likely to live in densely populated neighborhoods, in areas marked by redlining and poorly funded schools, with fewer options for healthy food, green space, decent jobs or safety.

If the story of America isn’t one of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ then what is it? And what could it become?

Being Black or brown in America means that you’re less likely to be insured, and that quality hospitals will be farther from your home. It means exposure to toxic pollution and environmental hazards, and record unemployment made worse by a rising cost of living. In the West, these inequalities cross urban-rural divides even more than racial divides.

Now, the COVID-19 outbreak has forced a reckoning.

The pandemic not only exposed today’s racial wealth gap, it magnified the contrast between privileged people like myself — middle-class professionals with steady jobs, who could afford to stay home, work remotely and remain healthy — and underpaid workers without child care, insurance or other resources.

But just as this pandemic has revealed a broken system, it has taught us another lesson, too. The first few weeks in self-quarantine at home in Tucson reminded me that our government does not have our back. But our neighbors and friends and food banks and mutual aid groups do: We may have been stuck at home, but we were not alone.

IN THE SPRING OF 1991, the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles cops gave me my first real glimpse into how racism is lived in America. I was 15 years old, one year into my new life in the U.S., and I remember watching the video on the TV news, thinking that our collective rage over this act of brutality would surely lead to the cops’ conviction. Instead, that display of police violence ended in the acquittal of the officers involved, sparking the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles. It also inspired then-President Bill Clinton’s response: the so-called Community Oriented Policing Services office, or COPS, which put 100,000 new police officers on the streets. Some of the officers hired back then are probably still on duty today, facing off with protesters in LA this June during Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Perhaps little has changed in the past 30 years. Then again, perhaps change — tangible change — is on the horizon.

The killing of George Floyd in May has sparked a nationwide uprising, calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racial inequities in the United States.

Seven years ago, three young black women —Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza of California and New York’s Opal Tometi — dreamed up Black Lives Matter.

Within a year of its founding, 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was killed by a white police officer, who, in an all-too-familiar pattern, wasn’t even charged with a crime. Black Lives Matter was there to “imagine and create a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.”

As modern-day abolitionists, Black civil rights protesters today are reiterating decades-old demands that were once deemed unthinkable: They’re calling for the release of low-level offenders from jail, independent investigations of police corruption, and the defunding or dismantling of police departments. But they’re also dreaming beyond the criminal justice system — demanding federal job guarantees, more resources for social workers and educators, rent moratoriums, reparations for not just the descendants of slaves, but displaced Indigenous peoples, and more.

The current moment has reawakened a feeling I remember from long ago. In 1995, as a freshman at Rutgers, a public college in New Jersey considered one of the most racially and culturally diverse in the country, I was part of something that gave me a sense of purpose for a long time afterwards: the campus takeover by Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian and first-generation immigrant kids like myself to protest the publication of The Bell Curve, a book that made bogus claims about race, including that Black people were inherently less intelligent than whites and Asians. Meanwhile, our university president, Francis Lawrence, echoing the book’s racist pseudo-science, argued that Black students performed poorly on standardized tests because of their genetic, hereditary background.”

At basketball games and inside classrooms, wherever we could assemble, we called for Lawrence’s resignation. In the end, Lawrence apologized and was spared. Eventually, the protests quieted down. But a new generation of leaders would come out of these protests and find their own voices. I found journalism. The memory of my fellow students staring into the fire as new copies of The Bell Curve burned still gives me chills. It reminds me of the importance of young idealism, of what it’s like to see demands that may at first seem unattainable suddenly come to life. It continues to give me some hope now for some kind of awakening, a remaking of the world, hope for my daughter’s future.

After George Floyd was killed, I joined a live webinar featuring former Black Panther and U.C. Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis. Now in her 70s, Davis was flanked by young activists video-conferencing in from around the country. With her office library behind her, Davis beamed as she spoke to activists at least four decades younger than her, reminding them that the United States has always set Black and brown people up for failure. The tragedy of COVID-19 had simply exposed the raw reality many people have known all along.

Hundreds of people gathered at an NAACP vigil to protest police brutality in in Tucson, Arizona, in early June.

“Even when it appeared that no one was listening outside of communities of color, this anti-racist organizing has made a major difference,” Davis told us. “We don’t often have the opportunity to so dramatically witness the results of activist and intellectual work that dramatically changes people’s minds and begins to shift mainstream narratives within a very short period of time.”

We are living through a moment of rebellion and possibility, of long-overdue demands that are finally getting traction beyond so-called communities of color. America’s old foundational myths are being questioned by millennials, Generation Z, and moderate and progressive whites. For the first time in our lives, we are witnessing a Black-led multiracial uprising that's growing in numbers and impact, not just in large cities, but even in the most obscure rural towns in the West. Here, the mission is urgent. Manifest Destiny and its legacies — conquest and land theft, blind patriotism and old promises — let these wither and die. Let the West instead lead the struggle for reconciliation and reparations for Black, brown and Indigenous peoples. Our new legacy can be one of true justice, civil rights and radical change. Let’s keep it going.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Tucson, Arizona. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.