Editor’s Note: Daniel Black is professor of African American Studies at Clark Atlanta University and author of the novel “The Coming” and the forthcoming “Don’t Cry for Me” (HarperCollins Press.) The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN
How in the world do scores of seditious rioters simply waltz into the United States Capitol, so casually that many of them record their invasion on their phones and take selfies with cops? How do they scale the walls and push through the doors and scatter the police and not get forcibly stopped by whatever means necessary? How does anyone breach the House speaker’s office and relax in her chair as if he owned the place?
Two words: White supremacy. It’s undeniable now, unmistakable. What happened on Wednesday was simple: Donald Trump told White people that America had been stolen from them, and he summoned them to Washington to take it back. He was their commander in chief, he gave them their marching orders, and all they had to do was obey. They saw insurrection as their duty, but also as their right.
If these overwhelmingly White invaders had instead been Black, the news headline would have read: “Massacre in the Nation’s Capital.” There is no damn way throngs of Black people could have similarly smashed their way into that citadel of world power without losing their lives en masse. Only with White privilege does such reprehensible behavior not meet deadly reprisals.
The mob was later labeled criminals. But when they were rampaging, they were not treated as criminals.
In fact, while listening to news coverage I heard one pundit say that the pride of America was how “protesters” – in this case, she was talking about the rioters at the Capitol – were protected by the Constitution and thus not attacked by police in the streets. My mouth fell agape. She should have said that, in America, Whites enjoy the privilege of acting out as they please without fear of being brutalized by the police.
In a video taken inside the Capitol during the invasion, a Black security guard is confronted and chased by angry White Trump supporters. As he orders them to stop, they rush at him, seemingly with the aim of overcoming him. He screams into a shoulder microphone, “I need back up! Send back up!” as he races up flights of stairs, pursued by a crowd of audacious whiteness.
The incident reminded me of scenes from D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” in which White men chase Black men who run frantically for their lives. It’s a caricature of race relations in a country that has never been honest about its history.
After the Capitol attack, President-elect Joe Biden said, “America is better than this.” But herein lies the problem: America is NOT better than this. America IS this. White supremacy is unwilling to surrender its reign. It declared itself alive and well at the Capitol, and, for the most part that day, the authorities left it alone. Four days later, authorities are identifying members of the mob, making arrests, and seemingly hunting down violators who overran and unashamedly damaged the Capitol. Many had dressed in attire so conspicuous that they seemed to want to be discovered.
This, too, is American. Self-righteous White supremacy has never felt the need to hide. Consider our history of lynching. These hangings of Black bodies were never a one-person act. Indeed, lynchings were public events where entire communities of Whites gathered – including children – to watch and cheer as Black life was decimated. Lynching was an American ritual, something of an American tradition, which the government at that time did not decry, and for which few were every punished. So, no, America is not better than this. In fact, peaceful Black protesters in the 1960s were battered by fire hoses and attacked by dogs. Black elders were shoved and beaten like animals on live TV.
No, we can’t say America is better than what happened on Wednesday. Not unless we are willing to lie about our history, to turn a blind eye to the injustices suffered by the Scottsboro Boys or the Central Park Five or George Floyd. If we tell the truth, we will admit that Trump supporters’ behavior is in the tradition of White supremacy in America, which is willing to destroy anyone and anything to retain its power.
Imagine, again, if that mob had been Black. The rioters would not have gone safely home. They would have been arrested or beaten senseless or killed. I watched in total disbelief as the President asked his riotous followers to calm down and told them to go home. Go home? Who gets to break into the Capitol then go home? Aren’t you at least taken downtown for questioning? Black, brown and many conscious White people watched the unfolding Capitol invasion with speechless awe, wondering who in the world gets to assault the American government without being destroyed? Well, now we know.
This attempt at coup was precipitated because, since November, Trump has convinced himself and his followers that the election was rigged and stolen from him. The allegation is preposterous and borderline insane. But this strategy – composing lies to avoid difficult truth – is not a Trump creation. It’s an American tradition. In antebellum days, many slave masters told themselves and others that their slaves were happy and content. Everyone knows that White settlers murdered Native Americans and took their lands, but that’s too much truth to swallow, too much ugliness to admit, so we simply transmute this truth into the Thanksgiving holiday and perpetuate a myth of early colonial harmony.
Another rejected truth is the caste system in America, which has locked Black and brown people into a prison of poverty from which many never escape. Americans like to say that any child willing to work hard can prosper. This isn’t true, but we want to believe it, so we say it. Public school systems have for decades labeled Black children inferior and troubled and disadvantaged and underrepresented in ways that determine their scholastic achievement. Few want to admit that often the real problem is the assumptions made about Blackness and its inability to succeed.
America maintains its glory by lying about its history and its shortcomings. Trump knows this game. If we blame him alone for this madness, we ignore the inner workings of racism and the fear that accompanies any challenge to White supremacy.
And that’s what Wednesday was really about – who are the true Americans? Those who stormed the Capitol believed they are. And from the way they were handled, it seems that many – but not all – police authorities agreed. In fact, the scarcity of law enforcement at all, from the beginning of the mutiny, suggests that too few in authority feared these insurgents or thought it prudent or necessary to guard against them.
It is also true that some officers worked hard to keep the Capitol secure as the horde surged in. One officer died in the line of duty. For this, America should certainly be grateful. Yet I hold fast to the position that had authorities taken the threat seriously from the beginning, the 60 police injured in the invasion might not have needed to sacrifice themselves for our safety. One cop, apparently a Metropolitan police office who’d arrived to help reinforce a pitifully outnumbered Capitol Police force – was seen in a horrendous viral video, pinned in a doorway screaming for help as the rioters in the doorway crushed him. Are his overwhelmingly White assailants – any of them? – in custody now?
Get our free weekly newsletter
Many truths will become apparent in the coming days. What we know for sure is that White supremacy is protected and respected in America, even when it is in full betrayal of the laws of the land. The inability and unwillingness of authorities to stop those who breached Capitol Hill security reminds Black and brown people not to forget their place in this land. “You can’t do what White folks do,” my father used to tell me. On Wednesday, his warning became abundantly clear.