New footage aired at the impeachment trial of Donald Trump has flooded the U.S. once again with images of the violent mob that stormed the Capitol last month, reigniting our horror and attempt as a nation to make sense of the event.
What we witnessed was white supremacy on full display. There were Confederate flags, nooses, symbols of antisemitism. There were members of “alt-right” groups such as the Proud Boys. Combine these facts with the reality that the white mob was there to overturn legitimate votes, especially votes cast by majority-Black voters who played a significant role in electing now-President Joe Biden, this was a case of white power and white rage unhinged. And we must not forget about the two Black Capitol police officers who were called the n-word multiple times. Given Trump’s white nationalist fervor and white racism, the majority white mob reflected his image, his anti-Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) sensibilities. All of this confirms that the Capitol Siege represented the brazen reemergence of white supremacy in our country.
Two east Texans described the mob violence as an attempt at a “second revolution,” while GOP Sen. Roy Blunt has sought to describe it as a right-wing equivalent to the Black Lives Matter upswell of protest against police brutality. Both of these formulations are hard to stomach.
“Revolution,” connotes the attempted overthrow of an existing power structure that is oppressive and unjust, but the “oppression” articulated by the majority-white mob who stormed the Capitol was actually a fabricated stew of conspiracy theories about election theft and the existence of threats to white supremacy.
Meanwhile, to conflate what took place at the Capitol with what took place on the streets of the U.S. (and around the world) last year regarding resistance to police brutality is to denude the latter of righteous indignation against current and historical systems of racial injustice.
The emergence of unabashed white supremacy was certainly on display at the Capitol on January 6, which is not to say that every white person there was a card-carrying member of a white supremacist group. The unprecedented storming of the Capitol and the brazen reemergence of white supremacy in our country, forced a set of questions regarding the meaning of revolution.
As I considered these things, I wondered what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. might think. To tackle these questions, I spoke with Peniel E. Joseph, who is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Joseph’s most recent book is The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., which was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Must-Read books of 2020.
George Yancy: During the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the term “revolution” was bandied about. When I think about Black revolutionary discourse and Black revolutionary consciousness in the U.S., I think about Black people who have had enough of white racism, its violence against and dehumanization of people who look like me. My point is that the discourse of Black revolution is grounded not just in self-determination or even armed struggle, but steeped in bringing an end to anti-Black racism, the brutalization of Black bodies and the reality of systemic racial discrimination and oppression. And even if one opposes armed Black struggle, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, one certainly understands that Black people are sick of being treated as sub-persons. So, what do you make of the discourse of “revolution” or “insurrection” vis-à-vis the largely white-led attack on the Capitol? The attack wasn’t motivated because of the weight of “historical anti-whiteness.” The U.S. was not founded upon anti-whiteness. What then was at its core, especially when one considers the demonstrable racist oppressive plight that Black people lived under and continue to live under? What I’m suggesting is that the term “revolution” that was used by some within the white mob was not only a misnomer but was denuded of a single thread of political integrity and righteous indignation.
Peniel E. Joseph: I absolutely agree. The white riot at the U.S. Capitol echoes the racial terror and violence that we witnessed during America’s first two periods of Reconstruction. In that sense, it might be considered a morally reprehensible and politically indefensible counter-revolution, the kind that brought Black America to its “nadir” during the Reconstruction’s afterlife, the period of the White Redeemer South. “Redemption” sought to deny Black citizenship and dignity by use of racial violence and systemic massacres and pogroms (later 19th century, peaking with the Wilmington, North Carolina, white riot of 1898 that displaced duly elected Black and white officials with unapologetic white supremacists).
What I witnessed at the Capitol was an expression of white nationalism. When I think about the founding of North America, I think about white nationalism. So, historically, white nationalism is inseparable from colonialism, xenophobia, brutality, land confiscation and anti-BIPOC racism. White nationalism is also predicated upon social ontological logics that are hierarchical, where white people are deemed human while non-whites are judged to be ersatz, inferior, evil, insects, vermin. In short, white nationalism is an expression of white power. When I witnessed Black people in the streets in the summer of 2020 in the U.S. and around the world protesting the killings of unarmed Black people, I saw Black power being expressed, but I didn’t see people displaying anti-white racism per se, especially as many white people were also in the streets speaking truth to power and affirming that Black lives matter. Some, I imagine, will want to conflate the protests by majority youth-led BLM protests with the violent attack on the Capitol. Black people want racial justice, they protest because they are not regarded as fully human. Help us to understand the differences in these separate events so that we avoid false equivalences and forms of obscurantism that are designed to “justify” white violence.
There is no moral equivalency between slavery and abolition. I say this from the outset, because the problem with comparing Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice with white supremacist insurrections to live in an authoritarian neofascist state that circumscribes Black lives is rooted in this remarkable resilient fallacy.
Even Barack Obama used this trope to save his presidential candidacy during his March 18, 2008, “Race Speech” in Philadelphia. He compared Jeremiah Wright’s Black Liberationist Theological critique of American imperialism to white resentment against affirmative action. This was lauded as the best speech on race matters since Lincoln. So, we face an uphill climb on this matter.
The best thing to say is that BLM activists are, in the tradition of Dr. King’s “beloved community” and Malcolm X’s human rights movement, trying to create a world that is free of racial injustice, economic inequality, violence, war and exploitation. Their pursuit of intersectional justice and centering of Black radical and queer feminism to their policy agenda stands in stark contrast to white rioters who are not only racist but don’t believe in democracy.
Given your wealth of knowledge regarding the different philosophical positions of Malcolm X (who later became known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and Martin Luther King Jr., speak to how both might conceptualize this moment in U.S. history. I am thinking not only about the storming of the Capitol, but the unabashed reemergence of white supremacy. This isn’t to deny that it has always been there. After all, white supremacy is like the Hydra of Lerna; it can grow many heads. There are many who see Malcolm and Martin as holding diametrically opposed views, but within our current moment, what would they agree upon philosophically and tactically as we live through this emergence of white terrorism?
My new book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., speaks to how Malcolm and Martin started as adversaries, turned into rivals, and ultimately became each other’s alter egos. They understood that true liberation required King’s radical Black citizenship and Malcolm’s concept of radical Black dignity.
King focused on not just ending racial oppression but reimagining citizenship as including a universal basic income, the end of poverty, violence and racism, decent housing fit for human beings and food justice. Malcolm imagined Black dignity as eradicating what he called White World Supremacy. He wanted freedom not just in Harlem, but in Haiti, from New Orleans to Nigeria, from Brooklyn to Benin to Bandung, Indonesia.
They would both agree that what we have seen is not surprising, considering their deep knowledge of history and interest in racial slavery to the present. King’s understanding of the searing racial wilderness that Malcolm often described came later, but when it arrived, King stalked this planet like a pillar of fire, a prophet whose scathing critique of white supremacy, war, violence and racism made him a pariah in a land that had only recently feted him as America’s Apostle of Nonviolence, Prince of Peace, and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient in history.
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” In New York City, on May 1, 1962, Malcolm X said, “What is looked upon as an American dream for white people has long been an American nightmare for black people.” Peniel, what do you see moving forward? Do you see a dream or a nightmare?
I believe that the struggle for Black dignity and citizenship is the key to building a “beloved community” premised on recognizing Black people as human beings and devoted to guaranteeing intersectional justice for all people. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all of us, differently, based on race, class, able-bodied-ness, gender, sexuality, geography, etc. What folks try to smear as “identity politics” is the actual realization that universality cannot be primarily seen through the lens of white male privilege. To defeat white supremacy, eradicate anti-Black racism, and achieve a different, more racially just and equitable country is the movement for our time. The future of American democracy rests on centering racial justice as the beating heart of the entire body politic.
I remain hopeful because of the depth and breadth of not just protest, but also organizing that has been witnessed this past year. BLM has proven to be a game-changing social movement that both rests on the shoulders of past icons such as Malcolm and Martin and expands the boundaries of the Radical Black Liberation Tradition in so many fruitful and important ways.
By centering the most vulnerable within the Black community — women, LGBTQIA, children, the cash poor, mentally ill, HIV positive, incarcerated, homeless — we are able to imagine a more liberated future for all of us. I truly believe Malcolm X and MLK would have marched arm in arm with BLM activists in the continuing search for that future based on their fervent belief that another, better and more just, world is possible.
This article has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.