Watching the mob scene on Capitol Hill over the last several hours, I was numbed by the whiteness that blanketed the screen.
As I get older, and possibly wiser, I find myself increasingly thinking about whiteness and of the mind-boggling degree to which my life as a Black American man has been impacted by it lately. Some 400 years since my ancestors were forcibly brought to these shores, and more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed them and their immediate descendants from enslavement, whiteness has dominated their (and now my) imagination, dreams of their/my future, and alas, even their/my joy.
To be clear, when I refer to whiteness, I mean the privileges, expectations, and elevated humanity afforded those in American society whose skin happens to be white; who exist daily in varying degrees of proximity to white people; who actively seek the affirmation of and their raison d’être from white people—and/or those whose aspirations for themselves, their families, and their communities are modeled on some kind of reflection of whiteness.
Today, this theme struck me with massive force. Televised scenes showed thousands of Donald Trump–supporting rioters and criminals, largely white and typically mask-less, descending on the nation’s largely Black capital. They held alternate-reality rallies. They heard speeches intended to recklessly inflame emotions and not-so-subtly encourage violent confrontation. For weeks, reports on various media platforms, across the political spectrum, have discussed January 6, 2021, as a day when groups ranging from the Justice Department–targeted Proud Boys to Women for America First were expected to parachute into Washington, D.C., to try and defy Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s election as the 46th president of this country.
Nevertheless, despite the mobsters’ extraordinary disregard for the rule of law, for agents of law enforcement, and for social norms regarding government, government property, and government processes, a near-mythical graciousness was shown to the insurrectionists. They were allowed in after the fences were breached. And they were free to wantonly roam the United States House and Senate hallways, entering offices, intimidating elected officials and their staffers, and taking a selfie on a cell phone, at times with willing Capitol Police.
Actually, I’m generally nonplussed at the seemingly daily instances of social hypocrisy displayed by our institutions toward nonwhite Americans when compared to the treatment of their white counterparts. But this felt different. As evening encroached, I felt sick with anger and disappointment. Sitting at my laptop furiously typing—occasionally shifting my view to look behind me at the television displaying images of D.C. in the clutches of Trumpers still milling around the Capitol grounds—I stopped to read postings on Twitter, Instagram, and numerous blogs that asked, rhetorically, “Where are the rubber bullets?” and “What about the riot-response gear?” These are clear references to last spring and summer, to wave after wave of Black Lives Matter protesters who, week after week, were confronted by well-equipped police, paramilitary units, National Guardsmen, unmarked troops, and, at times, unbridled vigilantes.
Today, I saw little show of force, for hours. I saw no batons. I witnessed no knees on necks. I watched, instead, a failed, half-assed coup attempt unfold, as did millions of others at home and throughout the world. And the executive branch, the federal government, the president of the United States, in effect, held the plotters’ coats.
As an American, I will go to bed disgusted. But as a Black man I feel joy, pride, and for the first time in many years, hope.
You see, I woke up to the news that my fellow Morehouse College brother—the Reverend Raphael Warnock (class of 1991)—a man raised by an 82-year-old mother whose hands “used to pick somebody else’s cotton”—had become the first Black U.S. senator from the state of Georgia. A short while later, Jon Ossoff, a Jewish man “descended from Ashkenazi immigrants who fled pogroms in the early 20th century,” who grew up in a family of Holocaust survivors, secured the state’s second U.S. Senate seat. Two men who, a century ago, would never have considered running for national office in Georgia, will, in the coming days, represent a state that was among the seven that gave birth to the Confederacy in 1861. The demonization, misinformation, and animus shown toward these two candidates ultimately failed. And, against all betting odds, they were victorious—uncompromisingly so.
On November 7, Dave Chappelle hosted Saturday Night Live on the day that Biden was officially declared the winner of the presidential contest. In a 16-minute-plus monologue, he ruminated on topics from COVID-19, his eponymous sketch comedy show being aired on Netflix (now removed), the election outcome, the inevitable disappointment felt by those who supported Trump, and the need for those inclined to celebrate Biden’s win to do so humbly. He told the audience and viewers at home, “You [white Americans] guys aren’t ready. You aren’t ready for this [referring to COVID-19 and declining socioeconomic indicators of well-being]. You don’t know how to survive yourselves.” For many, Chappelle is an incredibly problematic comic—for his remarks about women and the trans community, in particular—but on race, he provides me and many other people I know with material on which to reflect. You don’t know how to survive yourselves. In the deepest recesses of their hearts, I imagine that those compelled to protest in Washington today, and then later invade the Capitol building, recognize that the very identity they have held onto all their lives is, in a real sense, slipping away. And they’re afraid.
Those who overran the building that President-Elect Biden called a “citadel of liberty”—men and women buttressed and endorsed by a pathetic, soon-to-be exiting president in hiding—may see victory in their temporary occupation. But it is a Pyrrhic one. With every instance of “whitelash” against the increasing equity being afforded more and more Americans who don’t look or act like them, and for whom the American dream has at times seemed an elusive mirage, these would-be victors see their cause as yet another “lost” one.
But all is not lost. This morning many of us found ourselves. The victories in Georgia—the result of a record turnout among voters across the spectrum—proved that white Americans are actually reckoning with themselves and their fears of diminished power, of lost privilege, of their having to share their space and primacy in the American narrative. The lies they’d told themselves, and that have been passed down from generation to generation—that their humanity was more important than the dignity of their supposed lessers—is coming into clear view with every act, statement of coded rhetoric, and cynical policy intended to protect whiteness.
The scores of Black (especially Black women), Asian, Latino, Native, and white American voters who recognized the merit of Warnock’s and Ossoff’s qualifications and visions saw through the lie of whiteness. Little by little, despite the lack of troops in blue and green today, we are beginning, all of us, to see in color.
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