Now that Trump is out and we have President Joe Biden, and history has been made with America’s first female, African American and Asian American vice president, we must not forget recent history. We must not forget the white supremacy that displayed itself on January 6, at the Capitol. While President Biden scorned and truthfully spoke about “the sting of white supremacy,” and recognized publicly Black suffering in the U.S., we must be careful not to assume that 400 years of anti-Black racism will end in four or eight years. It will not! To assume otherwise is to be trapped in the euphoria of this moment.
I know that Black America is not a monolith. We have our differences. And yet, regardless of such differences — class position, sexual orientation, political affiliation, gender identity — we have something in common. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is that there is something that we don’t have that we have in common: whiteness. And while we may know this and know it painfully, I would have been remiss not to raise the issue at this moment in our country.
Time and time again, Black people in the U.S. have had “The Talk” with our Black children following the killing of an unarmed Black person by the state or white proxies of the state. In this moment — following the racist attempted coup on January 6 – it is similarly urgent for all of us who collectively comprise Black America to sit down with Black children and teach them in no uncertain terms about what took place during the white supremacist storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
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We need to communicate this tragic and antidemocratic storming not only because our vote, which has always been historically disrespected, was called into question and sought to be stolen, but we must tell our Black children once again that the U.S. itself was founded upon white violence, genocide, and on the backs of people who look like them. We must also deepen and personalize the story, which is going to be hard. For me, it is hard to look my Black sons in the eye and say to them that — to many people in this country — they don’t matter, their lives don’t matter, not really, within the larger context of the U.S.’s past and present history of anti-Black racism.
My God, how do you tell your children, while looking into their innocent eyes, that they were born in a world where they will be despised; born with an epidermal mark of Blackness and thereby with no rights that a white person is bound to respect; that their Blackness is a death sentence in a society that has continued to fail to address and upend the problem of anti-Blackness? The majority white mob that attacked the Capitol is yet another vicious reminder of that systemic condition.
As I watched what took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I didn’t just see a white vicious mob, I saw “white innocence” on full display, and by extension I saw its historical scaffolding: anti-Black racism. If you reimagine the attack on the Capitol, as I did, you will see Black protesters peacefully protesting, trying to convince white America that Black Lives Matter. Imagine in greater detail and you will notice the state’s deployment of SWAT, police armed with military-grade equipment, police decked out in riot gear, police mounted on horses, and the precise use of concussion grenades, all intended for the so-called real enemies of the United States of America: Black bodies.
The use of “enemy” here is by no means exaggerated. Over the past year, Black Lives Matter protesters faced law enforcement officers who, without real provocation, deployed tear gas and other chemical agents. In Portland, Oregon, protesters were even taken to detention centers and held there by unidentifiable federal officers. All of this because Black people are justifiably tired of Black bodies being murdered in the streets and in their own homes. Even as they protested police brutality, they were met with that same brutality.
If you allow your historical memory to carry you back far enough, in 1963, you’ll see young Black unarmed protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, engaging in nonviolent desegregation protests being beaten by white police with clubs, attacked by police dogs, and hit with high-pressure water hoses. You see, our a priori “Black guilt” follows from their a priori “white innocence.”
Black literary figure James Baldwin said of white innocence: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” The crime isn’t limited to what was done, but that they, because they were white, actually pulled it off with such ease, with little or at times, no resistance. They took selfies with white police at the Capitol. Selfies? Really? Hell, I tell my Black sons to be careful how they pull out their cell phones around white police officers for fear that the white officer might mistake them for guns.
What took place on January 6 revealed the value assigned to white life and, by implication, revealed the disposability of Black life. We witnessed, as the world watched, a United States that explicitly and implicitly sees white people as innocent even as they blatantly violate the law.
That is the hard truth that we in Black America must tell our Black children. There are some truths that are hard and heavy to bear, but necessary to speak or even shout. As Black mother and social practice artist Elisheba Johnson says, while speaking about her young Black son, “My love isn’t a bulletproof vest.” When our Black children leave the house, there is no guarantee that they will return home alive as they face many white people (not all) who don’t give a damn about the sanctity of their lives.
None of my white students, when asked, have ever said that their white parents have had “The Talk” with them as they leave the house. There is no discussion about how they should behave when around white police officers. There is no reminder: “Honey, please be careful! You know that your whiteness counts against you.”
As we talk with our Black children, we must emphasize that to be white in the U.S. is to be born with white privilege, white immunity from the horrific manifestations of race matters. As the white scholar Peggy McIntosh writes, “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.” She also knows that she was “meant to remain oblivious” to such privilege.
The etymology of the word privilege is helpful here. The word comes from the Latin words privus (private) and lex (law). This means that to be white in America is to be protected, even if you are not aware of it, by a “private law,” a law that doesn’t apply to Black people or people of color. It is this white private law that was on display as whites stormed the Capitol. Black America, we must never forget this. And we must not allow anyone to whitewash it. As I watched the storming, I thought of Black bodies being lynched by white mobs. I could see the contorted faces, the irrational and monstrous determination, the look of cruelty in their eyes. At the Capitol, they moved with a sense of religious zealotry, a sense of fanaticism, and herd mentality.
My reference to lynching is by no means far-fetched. At the Capitol, someone brought a noose that was hanging from a wooden beam, and after breaking camera equipment, someone made a noose out of the cords. Hold tight to what you witnessed. These are not accidents of history, but ritualistic weapons of anti-Black hatred. They speak of broken necks, body mutilation and blood-lusting white mobs. And we must never forget the white man who came into the Capitol with a Confederate battle flag. As we know, that flag meant and means our enslavement, our physical and social death. The meaning of that flag functioned as a site of white nostalgia, a site of homesickness where we lived our days serving white power, white greed and white desire.
And we mustn’t forget about our Jewish siblings. Recall the white man who wore the shirt that read, “Camp Auschwitz,” which alludes to the sign that Jews read as they entered the abominable Nazi concentration camp. Other antisemitic symbols and gear were prevalent. Members of Neo-Nazi groups had a presence among the mob. An antisemitic live-streamer cheered, “Shoutout to Germany!” as he watched his viewers increase while streaming inside the Capitol.
Some members of the mob prayed outside the U.S. Capitol. There was even a big sign that read, “Jesus Saves.” This reminded me of white writer and social critic Lillian Smith writing, “We were taught … to love God, to love our white skin, and to believe in the sanctity of both.” Yet, we must not forget the words of Black theologian James Cone: “To love is to make a decision against white racism.” What happened at the Capitol was not about love, but hatred, fear, divisiveness and white nation-building. And here’s the kicker. Their “rebellion” was predicated on a lie. There was no stolen election. Even Trump-appointed Republican judges said so. In other words, the threshold for igniting a white “revolutionary” overthrow of the Capitol wasn’t just low, it was nonexistent. Tragically, five lives were lost based upon that lie. Their blood stains the hands of all of those who nurtured and continue to nurture that lie, who continue to stoke baseless anger.
Given the level of white outrage, you would have thought that we live in an inverted world where white people had finally grown tired of experiencing centuries of de jure and de facto racial oppression, systemic discrimination, racial brutalization, police violence, being treated like sub-humans, and where “nigger” became their given name. You would think that white people were infuriated because a 43-year-old white man, thrown to the ground by Black police officers, cried out “I can’t breathe” 11 times while in a chokehold before dying; that a 17-year-old white teenager, who was walking home from a store with candy and an iced tea, was racially profiled by a Black neighborhood watch volunteer who eventually shot him to death; that a 12-year-old white boy, playing with his toy gun, was shot in roughly two seconds after Black police officers arrived on the scene; that an unarmed 50-year-old white man was shot in the back as he ran from a Black police officer; that a 46-year-old white man had a Black police officer’s knee on his neck as he cried for his white mama and eventually died from compression to his neck; that a 26-year-old innocent white woman was fatally shot in her apartment by Black plainclothes officers; that a 28-year-old white woman refused to put out her cigarette which thereby led a Black police officer to direct her out of her car and then to threaten her with the words, “I will light you up!” with his stun gun pointed at her.
Their white anger, fomented by a white racist xenophobe who peddles lies and conspiracies, seemed to mock genuine Black anger that has been in our bodies from the days and nights that we were in the bottom of slave ships during the triangular slave trade.
As Black people in the United States, the implied hyphen that links our being both African and American has always been fraught with tension, contradiction and violence by a white dominant society that communicated and communicates to us that we ought to go back to where we came from, and which consistently failed and fails to treat us as human beings. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of this twoness: “One ever feels his [her] twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
We, however, are America. Our spilled blood, our sweat and toil, our efforts to affirm our humanity, and our quest for freedom and dignity have forced white America to be truer to its words written on parchment. The U.S. — shaking at its democratic foundations, still deeply contradictory regarding race matters, still lacking the courage to right systemic racial wrongs — has made much of the progress it has made because we, Black people, loved the idea and practice of democracy more than many of the white founding fathers themselves. To love the idea and not the practice of democracy is both a manifestation of hypocrisy and idolatry, where white pretense sways, and the worship of idols (even the idol of democracy itself) is more important than the social and political manifestation of democratic life.
There is a deep sadness and irony in all of this. As the white mob stormed the Capitol — which has been called the citadel of democracy — perhaps none of them realized the true significance of the bronze figure standing at the very top of it: the “Statue of Freedom.” An enslaved laborer, Philip Reid, helped to construct the “Statue of Freedom” with his own hands. Black America, we gave our lives to make this democracy truer to its name. We crafted it through our own will, because of our deep desire for freedom, a freedom that we continue to fight for.
Yet, even as we fight, we would rather be respected and would rather be released from the fetters of systemic white racism. We want our humanity affirmed, which will entail the agony of white America risking its psychic safety and false sense of innocence. President Biden promised to have our backs. There is not much about American history that guarantees that promise. So even as we look forward to the social, political, economic and existential dividends of that promise, we would do well to remember that our history reveals that racism — whether it’s slavery, the dismantlement of Reconstruction in 1877, or the gutting of important sections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — exists as a cyclical process. I don’t say this to sow doubt in the deep and fragile possibilities of American democracy that lie ahead, but to remind us — through love — that we must never forget the lesson learned about the “innocence” of whiteness on January 6.