Last month the world witnessed one of the darkest moments in American history, when white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol in hopes of overthrowing the government, which the insurrectionists claimed was stealing an election that Donald Trump had actually won. In reality, they were driven by the same motives that led Trump to falsely claim the election had been stolen in the first place: an unyielding commitment to preserving the spoils of whiteness in America—spoils which millions of citizens view as their birthright.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which targeted members of Congress and former Vice President Mike Pence, many thought Republicans would, uncharacteristically, show political courage. Some reversed their fraudulent opposition to the election, others rightfully blamed the president for inciting the insurrection, while 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump. But that was the extent of their concern, and no one should have expected more.
Not long after the siege Republicans reverted to their old ways, marked by near-unanimous and unflinching support for Trump himself. So far they’ve refused to support legislation to help those hardest hit by COVID-19, twisted President Biden’s repudiation of white supremacy to portray it as a divisive political attack, tried to overturn the results of the Senate elections to force Democrats to forfeit the power to eliminate the filibuster—and, thus, any chance at advancing their agenda. Worse than that, all but seven Republican Senators voted to acquit Trump at the end of his second impeachment trial, insulating him from accountability for his crimes against the country once again.
We all should’ve known.
The Republican Senate conference is overwhelmingly white, and the party has been working just as hard as those insurrectionists to preserve an America where we forfeit any collective progress that threatens white supremacy.
Many of the same Republicans who claimed to be astonished and ashamed by what happened didn’t find it necessary to denounce Trump throughout his presidency or dispute claims of election fraud, in hopes that it might benefit them politically. In the aftermath, most have refused to condemn those Republicans most responsible for helping Trump incite the insurrection. The Republicans who have faced the most consequences are the few who’ve actually taken a stand against insurrection.
Some Democrats even shied away from holding Trump accountable. Before supporting impeachment, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) argued we should move on, to address the issues facing America, as if white supremacy isn’t one of them. While an old guard of mostly white Democrats hoped to sweep the ugliness under the rug, a diverse group of Democrats recognized the Capitol attack for what it was—a racist insurrection that needed an immediate and consequential response. Unfortunately, leaders in both chambers disagreed, adjourning Congress just one day after the attack without taking any action. Weeks later, when House impeachment managers asked the Senate to allow them to subpoena witnesses, Democrats balked, acting on some of the same impulses that made many of them skeptical of impeachment in the first place.
These varied responses magnify a significant blindspot, one that could be eliminated if our leaders heeded a long-standing critique of American greatness embraced by many Black Americans, who understand that large segments of this country don’t believe we should be treated as full citizens.
The Black experience—often overlooked or undervalued—made it easy to see the mob for what it was, which in turn helps explain why our experiences are so often discounted. The unblinkered view Black people have of American racial politics would create an unbearable level of cognitive dissonance for millions of white Americans, who’ve grown used to an arrangement that places their interests first. But if this country is to be what it claims, it must seek to understand Black experiences and thus to understand America for what it is, rather than what it proclaims to be.
Throughout American history the country’s desire to live up to its ideals has always run headlong into people who prefer to preserve a country hard wired to protect the interests of white citizens. More Americans would grasp this if they studied history, but they could also just talk to Black peers about their life experiences, detached from any larger historical context.
When I was 12 years old, two white children tricked my twin sister and me into meeting up away from a crowd of other students just so one of them could call us niggers—one of them said the whole point was to test how we’d react.
I remember standing there slightly warm and very embarrassed that I didn’t do more than go back inside. Although I didn’t know it at the moment, that experience taught me a very early lesson about how white supremacy emboldens white people, even children, to cause intentional harm with very little concern for consequence. At that moment I wasn’t this kid’s classmate, I was a thing that lacked humanity, and thus didn’t deserve to be treated like a person.
In high school, a white classmate told me that UNC Chapel Hill only accepted me, while rejecting her, because of my race. She didn’t know or care about anything I achieved, but was certain that affirmative action had disrupted how things should be.
I mention these incidents not because they’re extraordinary, but because they’re commonplace. Most Black people can tell similar stories about their lives in America, and much worse ones, too. They may seem innocuous to those who don’t live them, but they reveal the truth about this country, a truth that left few Black people surprised or confused about the January 6 attack on the Capitol and all the events that followed.
I believe many white people—an increasing number even—understand that these things happen to Black people all the time, and that it’s wrong. There’s a reason well-meaning people of all races, ethnicities, and economic statuses protested and proclaimed Black lives mattered after police killed George Floyd.
But too few of them grasp that these episodes reveal the same mentality that powered the Capitol riot. They underscore how aggressively many white people, even ones who claim to abhor racism, will fight to preserve a social order that they dominate. Their bristling at the thought that a Black student might have displaced a white one at a selective university comes from the same place of intolerance we see in those who can’t accept that a president proudly advancing white interests lost handily to a challenger who was elected by an American multiracial coalition. It’s no coincidence that the ballots they proclaimed to be tainted were cast overwhelmingly by Black voters in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Detroit. People who routinely see the worst of America but continue to fight for its best ideals because it’s the only way we’ll survive. Of course Trump supporters think those votes shouldn’t count.
If there’s a silver lining to the Capitol riot it’s that it clarified for many powerful white leaders that they are not exempt from the violent logic of white supremacy. No one’s ever really safe—even Pence, who actively upheld the social order of white supremacy until the minute it asked too much of him, at which point he became its greatest enemy. This, too, came as no surprise to anyone who listens to Black people.
In the end I hope the legacy of the Capitol Riot isn’t an impeachment trial or criminal convictions, but a more complete consciousness. A wider recognition that a country where so many casually assume that Black people don’t belong in their nice neighborhoods and only feign concern for Black lives when it’s easy to hop on the bandwagon, is one that will remain vulnerable to those who would cement the social order with violence.