As surely as night follows day, any flex of political power by Black and brown people in the United States will be followed by a reactionary white supremacist show of force. The pattern of racist white backlash to the barest hint of racial progress has persisted since the earliest days of the republic up until now, from antebellum white mobs attacking free Black people essentially just for existing, to the Civil War itself, and post-Reconstruction violence punishing Black self-determination in Tulsa, to the violent resistance to the civil rights movement, and then the enraged, panicked genesis of the Tea Party and the Trump era immediately after the election of the first Black president. Against that historical backdrop, the white insurrectionist takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was as predictable as a pendulum’s swing.
After all, the purpose of Congress’s session was to ratify the results of the 2020 election, where the political power and organizing genius of BIPOC not only issued an unmistakable electoral rebuke of white supremacy’s latest avatar in Donald Trump, but also delivered the first Black and South Asian woman in history to the office of the vice president. The day also came directly on the heels of the Georgia Senate seat runoffs, where the power of Black voters—largely organized by Black women leaders—elected the state’s first Black and first Jewish senators, wresting control of a southern state and the Senate itself from Republicans’ grip in the process. Notably, both the outcomes in the general election and the runoff came despite concerted efforts to suppress Black and brown voting power. For those committed to the conception of America as a white ethnostate, then, those victories represent a special danger because they highlight both the reality that solidly “red” states have only been such because of voter suppression, and the fact that such suppression can be out-organized, out-strategized, out-voted, and overcome. Anyone who believed the white supremacists Trump and the Republican Party have been coddling and cultivating would peaceably accept any of that has not been paying attention.
And however today’s news stories and tomorrow’s history books may try to whitewash the motivations animating this insurrection—credulously accepting the mob and their sympathizers' appeals to disproven “voter fraud” or “election irregularities”—this was not about anything other than white people lashing out and trying to regain control of a nation they believe is theirs and theirs alone. The symbols of the day, which the insurrectionists self-consciously brandished as they illegally forced their way into the center of the federal government, speak for themselves: A noose hanging from a wooden beam on Capitol grounds. The Confederate battle flag hoisted in the Capitol building. A white man covered in tattoos of white supremacist symbols standing smugly on the balcony of the Senate chamber.
So, what now? Historically, too often the U.S. government response to violent white backlash has been reconciliation and retreat: Don’t punish the Confederate rebels too much, and abandon Reconstruction; keep welcoming segregationists into polite society and public life, and avoid spooking them by shunning as “leftist” any public policy that would benefit Black and brown people. That absence of consequences continues to the present day. Just last year an armed right-wing mob entered the Michigan statehouse and was similarly met with little resistance and virtually no repercussions afterward. It’s hard to imagine that the mob who stormed the Capitol didn’t witness the Michigan episode and absorb the unmistakable lesson of white impunity. And at the Capitol, they saw their impunity confirmed as police stood aside while the insurrectionists broke into a federal building and arrested virtually no one afterward, a stark contrast to the way Black demonstrators have been treated in recent months. Beyond that, it remains to be seen whether Congress will take any coordinated steps to hold the culpable leaders—Trump, Sen. Josh Hawley, Sen. Ted Cruz, and other Republicans—accountable and strip them of power so they can’t continue to endanger people.
Dressed up as a noble desire to move forward and forgive, these constant failures to hold lawless white supremacists accountable only leave BIPOC unprotected and send the message that perpetually escalating attacks on multiracial democracy have no consequences. While white supremacist backlash to growing Black and brown political power may not be wholly preventable, the way the nation chooses to respond to that backlash can neutralize its ability to harm BIPOC as we continue to rightfully and forcefully assert our full personhood in this country. Those in power have a responsibility to act with that aim in mind.
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