Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The image is jarring because it’s a scene so commonplace, so normal. A few Black men are seen in a video sweeping and vacuuming in the Capitol building to undo some of the damage caused by a mostly White mob trying to overturn an election because their preferred candidate lost.
Given this country’s racial history, it’s difficult or darn near impossible not to see those decades-deep racial connections. There’s something else, too, though. An abiding dignity in the work the men are doing. An illustration of their importance to the health of this country, just the latest example of how Black Americans remained steadfast throughout our history come what may.
It feels wrong that they had to pick up the pieces from a failed insurrection attempt that, had it been successful, would have disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly those in areas with heavy Black populations. It not only feels wrong but is wrong. It shouldn’t be this way. In the democracy we all supposedly love and cherish, the racial and income and power inequalities evident in that video shouldn’t exist. But they do and always have. Black people have always been forced into a kind of Sophie’s choice, to love a place that has for too long hated us while knowing that’s what’s best for us all, nevertheless.
I don’t want to read too much into the motivations of those men. Maybe they simply felt they had to do their jobs. Still, their presence in that place at that moment signified something deeper than just work duty. Whatever the reason they were there, Black people cleaning up after a White mob trying to undermine democracy is a powerful image, especially considering that nooses were among the things the rioters were carrying and the Confederate flag paraded through the chamber.
Despite the chaos, the Black men seen cleaning up remained focused on what they could change, what they could improve. They didn’t get caught up in returning hatred with hatred, anger with bitterness, confrontation with balled fists.
That’s very much in line with how Black people survived horrific race-based chattel slavery to get a taste of freedom and how they only wanted equality, not revenge. It is how they endured a century of lynchings and Jim Crow and opposed it with a world-changing, non-violent movement. Even now, even in the face of a President who appeals to racist bigots and incited a riot in the nation’s capital, a man who spent five years before he was elected smearing the country’s first Black president with a bigoted conspiracy theory, that hasn’t changed.
Black people aren’t asking for special treatment or to be given all the power. They are asking not to be unnecessarily killed by armed-agents of the state, better schools for their children, a just justice system and a fairer shot at competing for jobs and careers.
In the wake of Trump’s victory in 2016, they did not try to overthrow the government because they didn’t get what they wanted. They organized to better utilize their political power. And without Black voters, President-elect Joe Biden would never have been able to put an end to the nightmare of Trump.
Those men in that video were not only cleaning up after the actions of pro-Trump supporters eager to disenfranchise people who look like them. They were readying the place for leaders who had to flee but needed to return to complete their tasks. They were sweeping up the broken glass inside while the mob was outside praising itself for undermining our democracy – making the US a laughingstock around the globe – and confronting law enforcement officials who had finally begun taking charge.
With each stroke of the broom, they were slowly helping to piece this democracy back together. It’s what Black people have always done, no matter the circumstances, not matter the burden placed upon their backs. I’m just wondering how much more – and how much longer – we have to endure to perfect this democracy.