Editor’s Note: Michelle Duster is an educator, public historian, and author of several books including “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells” (Atria/One Signal Publishers). The views expressed here are the author’s own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The mob action that took place at the US Capitol two weeks before the inauguration was a reminder that most White and Black Americans live in different worlds with vastly different realities.
Most White people in America have the privilege to express their anger, to have their humanity recognized and their grievances heard even when they are loud, rowdy or destructive. There is a privilege to being able to scream at police officers and be met with compassion and patience.
There is a privilege in feeling free enough to assemble in large numbers armed with assault weapons, to storm federal buildings, crash through windows, roam around a seat of power, take selfies, brandish flags with racist symbols – and leave unharmed. There is a privilege in being considered an individual making personal choices versus an example of an entire race.
This feeling of freedom to take a violent approach to express feelings of being wronged is an extension of the unbridled barbarism and oppression my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells lived through over 100 years ago. Born into slavery in 1862, Wells came of age during Reconstruction.
The progress of Black people was met with rage and violence then, too. Hate groups formed and reigns of terror were unleashed. Black people were murdered with impunity for minor infractions or accusations of crimes. Mob rule ran rampant and more often than not, no White person involved in the murder of a Black person was ever held accountable. The idea that they were “taking their country back” was the motivation for rolling back the gains achieved by Black Americans back then – and it echoed in 2021.
Every Black person I know who watched the insurrectionists storm the Capitol on January 6 saw America’s disparate racial realities in the in-your-face exhibition of White privilege on steroids. A deeply wounding reminder of all we cannot do.
For us, it is not about wanting the freedom to commit violent acts. It is about wanting to see people prosecuted for those acts rather than feel they can commit them without consequences. It is about wanting Black people to receive the same grace by police as those who were gently escorted out of the capitol after breaking, entering, and desecrating it.
Black people know from 400 years of experience in this country that we do not have the freedom to express anger without being considered threatening – and sometimes shot or killed. We do not have the freedom to brazenly enter the halls of power shirtless with painted bodies and headdresses and be regarded as individuals who are legitimately expressing ourselves. Then, be served organic food upon request once arrested days later.
This is the reality Black Americans have known all along. Emboldened White people feel they have to right to question the presence of Black people in school dormitories, in coffee shops, in parks, in parking lots while listening to music. Police officers shot and killed Botham Jean and Breonna Taylor in their own homes. And then of course the murder of George Floyd, broadcast for the world to see, showed how police response to Black people’s minor transgressions can result in death.
As I watched the mob of so-called “patriots” storm the Capitol with minimal law enforcement present, the fact that some of the vigilantes had plastic zip ties and weapons and walked away unharmed was mind-boggling. It reminded me of how mobs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gathered to participate in and watch lynchings of Black people, take pictures of each other’s gleeful faces and convert them into postcards, and absolutely no one was arrested for murder.
In fact, Wells concluded there were times that law enforcement officers were either part of the mob or did nothing to stop them. She wrote in the 1893 “The Reason Why” pamphlet: “The mob spirit had increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long since been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight.” My great-grandmother would have probably been disappointed but not surprised that lawless White men today are met with a wink and a nod.
The history of White citizens policing Black people and railing against Black progress is centuries-long – from slave patrols, Black codes and sundown towns to today’s harassment of people in driveways of their own homes. Wells documented hundreds of lynchings that took place during her time.
When Black people have expressed anger and wanted to fight for the right to be free in the nation of their birth, the response has often been one of brutal militarized force. The entire summer of 2020 was an example of that. And the summer of 2014, the spring of 1968, the summer of 1919 and more. Time and time again, when Black people have shown up and expressed their pain and rage, we are treated as threatening criminals who need to be oppressed and controlled.
Meanwhile, on January 6 the Capitol mob proudly displayed nooses and a Confederate flag while the whole nation watched. Federal prosecutors have charged over 100 defendants in connection with the Capitol riot. And yet, during the January 13 impeachment hearings dramatic false equivalencies were made between those who protested police brutality and social oppression during the summer to those who tried to violently overturn an election result they did not like. Again, conflating Black anger and hurt with criminality, while shrugging off White mayhem and destruction.
So, in the midst of the joy and pride I felt on Inauguration Day watching Kamala Harris take the oath to assume the second most powerful political position in the land, my elation was tempered by the fact that huge swaths of this country’s population resent her being there. Resent us being here. I can celebrate the fact that her achievement was made possible by the work of thousands of women, including Wells, in the suffrage movement and all of the freedom fighters who endured indignities over the decades. On January 20 there was a sense of hope that the dreams of our ancestors can come true.
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We have experienced a century of laws that made way for racial progress – however morality and human decency cannot be legislated. My great-grandmother spent her life fighting for justice and equality so the next generations could enjoy the benefits of being treated as first-class citizens in this country. Black parents today want the same for their children and subsequent generations. We can take pride and joy in the milestone of a Black/South Asian woman breaking social and political barriers, while also acknowledging the unfinished work toward racial equality and justice that lies ahead.