The World is Watching Us
The global pandemic has, by definition, challenged governments and people around the world. No country is untouched, and no society unaffected. At one point this spring we learned that some 95% of the school-age children of the world were not in school. COVID-19 has also brought into sharp relief why governments, policies and institutions matter. The uncertainties and unpredictability we have all faced as the virus spread across the globe have required innovation and improvisation in the search for adequate responses. In retrospect some responses will prove to have been better than others. When the histories are written, I am certain we will learn much about the impact of institutions and policies, about why it matters how governments and societies react to crises and challenges.
The global pandemic arrived in a context in which the United States was intentionally exiting center stage from the arenas of international collaboration and cooperation. In recent years the US has retreated from leadership—and indeed even from participation—in global efforts to address global problems, whether the Paris climate change accord, human rights institutions, security pacts, or most recently, in the midst of the greatest health crisis in a century, the World Health Organization.
But as we became the single most affected country by COVID-19, and as we struggled to define a national strategy, much world attention remained focused on the United States. For better or for worse, and rightly or wrongly, the judgment of the world has not been favorable. In a stinging editorial in the Irish Times, the writer Fintan O’Toole noted: “The world has loved, hated and envied the United States. Now, for the first time, we pity it.”
And yet, as the world watches, new momentous events further complicate judgments. As we continue to grapple with an adequate response to the virus, as behaviors and policies recommended by science and health experts become new points of political contention and divisiveness, our own attention and that of the world has suddenly shifted to a new American drama. In cities and towns across the country the world has watched dramatic scenes unfold, scenes that lay bare the reality of the persistent failure of the United States to address its most fundamental historical failing: the striking inequalities and injustices that are the legacy of the enslavement and the subsequent systematic marginalization of black Americans.
In an extraordinary essay published as part of The 1619 Project, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that “the United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” The promises of equality and inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence were never meant to apply to all. And the Americans who have most consistently fought and struggled throughout our history to demand that we strive for the ideal and that we expose the lie have been black Americans. In many ways, the core narrative of American history has been driven by that dual imperative, the dark shadow of the historical legacy punctuated by periodic moments bearing the promise of change.
Yet looking back from 2020 at the historical record, moments of hope such as the advances brought by the civil rights movement must now also be acknowledged as failures. The promise of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was gradually eroded by other—often thinly disguised—means. As new policies disproportionally swelled prison populations with black citizens, and as laws in various places dictated permanent disenfranchisement, new barriers to voting perpetuated the systemic under-representation of black Americans in our political institutions. In 2018 Florida citizens voted overwhelmingly to undo that injustice, yet its implementation immediately became a point of political contention and was confronted by efforts to undermine that democratic choice. The examples are endless, and the statistics that dispassionately document the staggering systemic inequalities of racial injustice are readily available, whether of income, wealth, education, jobs, business ownership, or health—brutally reflected in the extraordinary over-representation of black Americans in the COVID-19 death counts.
This ugly truth is unflattering, and shameful. And yet in this moment of global crisis we have unexpectedly again been granted a historical opening, a chance for if not redemption at least a step towards more justice and dignity. The popular reaction to the extrajudicial killing of one more black American man by state security forces has struck a chord, in the United States and globally, that gives us an opening to again hope that change might be possible. By his murder, George Floyd, like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others before them, has become a symbol of centuries of injustice and oppression. His death forces us to again acknowledge that reality, and challenges us to confront it.
If there is hope in this moment, it is driven not by our institutions, but by ordinary Americans who have taken to the streets and the squares of our cities, at times confronted and at times joined by security forces, and who are demanding change. Our black fellow citizens have of course led the way, but they have been joined on the streets by tens and then hundreds of thousands of American citizens from all backgrounds.
In the process, global attention has once again turned to the United States. Protests, speeches and demonstrations by Americans demanding fundamental reforms are in the headlines, on television screens, and spreading virally on social media across the globe. And far beyond our borders, in city after city, citizens of other countries have themselves marched in solidarity. In so doing, they have also been motivated and inspired, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada eloquently did recently, to see in the American demonstrations a reminder to countries to look at their own social inequalities and injustices. So it goes in France, Australia, Germany, Kenya, Mexico, India….
This American drama has brought us squarely back into the international spotlight, and has again underlined the reality of our interconnected and globalized world. As it unfolds, it will be shaped by our capacity to both learn from the rest of world, and to re-find and articulate our own moral compass that might serve as an example for addressing injustices and inequalities around the globe. At universities we are blessed to have unique resources to contribute, and a responsibility to do so. In our research on the varied impact of diverging policies, in exchange and discussion with our international students and colleagues, and in the perspectives that our Study Abroad students both share with their hosts and bring back to our community, new ideas, models and frameworks for social justice and peace can be born. Now more than ever it is imperative that we embrace our global mission.
The historical context that has given rise to the mix of fascinated horror and anxiety felt by people watching abroad has now also driven and motivated a broad and diverse coalition of Americans to mobilize to demand change. And in the process international sentiment has turned to hope and to admiration, not for our institutions or our politics, but for our people. It is a moment we must seize. If we fail, much hope fails, in the United States and across the world.
Leonardo A. Villalón
Dean, UF International Center