I was sitting next to my Dad as I watched angry white men storm the Capitol on behalf of President Donald Trump.
My father is 78 years old and he’s not in the best of health. But when he was younger, he was cool as a cucumber. He and all of his brothers were in the service during Vietnam. My mother’s brother was in Vietnam. My mother’s father and all of his brothers served in the colored regiment during World War II.
These Black men were patriots. They taught me to be honest and hardworking. And, most importantly, they taught me to love my country even when it didn’t love us back.
It’s felt like that a lot recently. Last summer, Black people across the country took to the streets about that injustice. We watched Black people get shot to death in our homes, or choked to death under the knee of people who are supposed to protect and serve. And when we marched — to defend our very lives — we were shot with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Still, when I write on the pages of this newspaper about the disparities Black people face in this country, I’m told by readers that if I don’t like the way this country treats Black people, I can leave. When I’ve defended the right of Colin Kaepernick to take a knee, I’ve been called a defender of thugs. When I’ve written that Donald Trump is a racist, acts like a renegade, and ignores American values, I am called an unpatriotic wench.
I wonder what these same people, these alleged defenders of American values, would say about the mob who broke into the Capitol and trashed desks of lawmakers to impede democracy. Would they question their patriotism?
What happened at the Capitol was not a protest. It was an insurrection. Yet in a tweet that’s since been removed, Trump — who still holds the highest office in the land — called the insurgents “great patriots.”
Trump supporters have been foreshadowing what would happen for months if they didn’t get their way. Yet America was still surprised when they walked into the nation’s Capitol. We watched as their bodies were left whole as the angry mob breached the Capitol, some waving Confederate flags emblazoned with Trump’s face.
While several Republican senators condemned the attack on democracy, many still repeated the lies that prompted it. (And worse: Sen. Josh Hawley was photographed, power fist raised to the crowd, before they stormed the Capitol.) Republicans still voted to object to the certification of Arizona and Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, ultimately giving the will of the people the middle finger.
What will happen to them? They will remain in office.
This hypocrisy is at the core of Black people’s pain and anger. This is why even in the face of hope — the Biden-Harris win and Democratic control of the Senate — we want to throw our hands up in despair. Why should I feel sad for my country? Was this country ever mine? We give up.
Because the truth of it is this: The core of the Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights movements was not overthrowing the government. Collectively, Black people want to be listened to. We want to be treated like our lives do matter. And at the very least, we don’t want people to feel like they can kill us with impunity. Black people built and fought for this country, too. These are rights of every American.
Need proof? Flint still has dirty water, but the people who stormed the Michigan Capitol weren’t Black people. In the past, Georgia disenfranchised Black voters. What did they do? They voted in 2020. Here in Philadelphia, even at the height of last summer’s BLM protests, yes, there was some destruction and outbursts of anger, but these were expressions of democracy. The goal was not stopping democracy from taking place. Why? Because that’s not what good Americans do. Not to mention, we’d be shot on sight.
So why aren’t those protesters seen as patriots? It’s built into the very roots of our system.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson writes in her 2020 best selling book, Caste, that after Reconstruction, “the dominant caste [white Americans] devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people at the bottom rung ever so tightly.” Wilkerson continues: “The colonists created a caste of people who would by definition be seen as dumb because it was illegal to teach them to read or write, as lazy to justify the bullwhip, as immoral to justify rape and forced breeding, as criminal because the colonists made a natural response to kidnap, floggings and torture — the human impulse to defend oneself or break free — a crime if one were black.”
No wonder when Black people stand in solidarity, take a knee, or defend our right to just be, we are damned and deemed unpatriotic. It is the American system. This is what happens when a nation collectively believes in the inherent goodness of white people, no matter what they say or do.
But while we know this to be true, it doesn’t hurt any less when Black people’s loyalty to America is continually questioned. In fact, it stings even more. After all, aren’t we Americans, too? What do you think it does to us to be constantly vilified for exercising our right to live while we watch a white mob breach the Capitol and walk away? What does this do to our souls?
“When we see this, a spectrum of responses comes up,” said Ebony White, a licensed professional counselor and psychology professor at Drexel University. “Some of us shake our heads at the country because we know this is not new. Then there those of us who are just fed up and angry because we know we don’t have the same liberties and rights as those people we just watched storm the Capitol. This is why, collectively speaking, Black people have a hard time believing in America.”
Yet we do. We still continue to believe in this country, in spite of everything. We still fight for it to be better.
After all, it was the Black vote that ultimately made the difference in the election. It was the Black vote that the mob was looking to overturn.
My dad and I watched the insurrection coverage well into the night. He nodded off in and out of sleep. And when he woke up, he just shook his head, and didn’t say much.
He didn’t have to.