Angry white male rage was on full display Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds gathered determined to upend the democratic process and reinstate their failed leader who embraces the tenets of white supremacy. Many of these men are bound by the hazy notion that their privilege as whites has been usurped, and their status as men is being marginalized.
Academics will spend decades examining the carcass of the siege on the Capitol, trying to understand what set it off. Here’s what the historians, apologists, and sociologists will find.
White male rage has long been appeased at the price of African Americans’ lives and livelihood. We were the sacrificial offering in a class war that kept working white men’s anger from turning on the whites who held political and economic power. From 1619 until the present day, Blacks have been forced to live within a world where white men, in the name of protecting their way of life, were allow to brutalize anyone they felt was a threat. For marginalized people including LGBTQ folks, religious minorities, and especially African Americans, the system to appease white men was toxic, but so prevalent that it became normalized. And when those who suffered under its breath-taking jackboot protested, white America refused to see its brutality.
As the Equal Justice Initiative puts it on their Segregation in America website: “White segregationists were not banished or shamed; they were respected and elected to some of the highest levels of national authority long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The accommodation of people who proudly proclaimed racist ideology and white supremacy implicates these institutions and undermines the notion that racial equality has been achieved.”
What we saw Jan. 6 was a breach of the protection wall shielding white Americans from the worst of their compatriots’ rage. We saw that rage turning inward, “white on white.” It was the roosters coming home to roost.
Among the many reasons for white students to study African American history, it is to prepare for a moment such as now. It teaches that nothing in America is more dangerous than aggrieved white men. In their frenzy, freedman have been kidnapped and re-enslaved, cities bombed and burned, and innocent people have been lynched. And with each injustice, too many to tally now, the pillars of democracy crumble a little more. Students learn the moral of the long arc of Black American history: A just and equitable democracy is our country’s best, perhaps only, bulwark against the violent injustice that would destroy us.
The significance mustn’t be lost that the day the mob stormed the Rotunda demanding representation without electoral victory, Georgians had voted to send their first Black Senator to Capitol Hill. Some media reports mistakenly portrayed it as a win for African Americans, when it is a win for anyone who wants a peaceful democracy to triumph. Stacey Abrams, who joined with other organizers statewide to lead a valiant fight against voter suppression — a favorite tool of white supremacy — had taught the entire country a lesson about the power of the vote for peaceful change.
History also told us this day — one of an insurrection at the Capitol, which would overshadow a massive political victory for Black Americans — was coming.
White anger doesn’t dissipate, but regroups. White opposition to the Civil Rights Movement was equally ugly, as aggrieved whites feared losing privilege and status and set out to turn the clock back 100 years. “Racist politicians enjoyed support from the majority of white voters; the Ku Klux Klan claimed many of the South’s most prominent and powerful citizens as members; and white perpetrators of vicious attacks on Black people were regularly acquitted by all-white juries,” according to EJI. The battle for white supremacy reproduces itself each generation.
But in this chapter, white leadership is confronting angry white men. The threat to our democratic way of life must be met not with appeasement, but by bringing angry white men into the republic on equal footing with the rest of we the people.
Now we have to wait for the authentic leadership to get us there. Who’s going to step up?
Chad Dion Lassiter is executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.