Finally, after one of the most suspenseful and unnerving elections of my lifetime, the United States Congress was poised on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, to certify Electoral College votes, a long-held ceremonial element of every incoming presidential cabinet. Instead, mayhem descended on the capital city, and Congress itself, as a mob of Trump supporters laid siege to the Capitol Building with the world as a witness. On what began as an otherwise ordinary day, this mob had climbed the barrier walls, pushed their way past security, and tore through the halls of the US Capitol, trampling Capitol police.
In the first hour, as this spectacle unfolded, there was silence from the White House. Disgraceful and telling, but not surprising. Are you all seeing this??? read an all-staff email, and If these were black folks…! was the common refrain among friends in text messages. After a couple hours of chaos, President-Elect Biden stepped into presidential leadership, filling the vacuum left by President Trump, whose earlier rhetoric had thrown a match into this powder keg, before further encouraging the mob with Tweets sent from his safe hideaway.
I was relieved and thankful for Biden’s demonstration of leadership, that there was now a functional adult at the helm to contend with an in-progress attempted coup in what should have been one of the most secure places on the planet! But my relief quickly gave way to exasperation as Biden spoke these words:
Let me be very clear. The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are. What we’re seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. […] As I said, America is about honor, decency, respect, tolerance. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.
Biden followed this with another statement, a true statement. He said the words of a president matter, and this multiplied the insult to the record number of Black people who had cast their vote for the man. An obvious through-line exists from African enslavement to the Slave Codes to the codification of whiteness in 1600s colonial Virginia to plunder and land theft to the Jim Crow era, lynching, housing discrimination, voter suppression, mass incarceration, state murder with impunity of unarmed Black people, disproportionate numbers of death in COVID-19 cases and on and on, right up to the display at the Capitol of a white confederate congregate, unmasked during a contagion.
In the years following the Black Civil Rights movement, a kind of slick psychological maneuver made it more outrageous to be called a racist than to actually be a racist. And, of course, the latest pronouncements: “We are not this”; “We are good people”; “Those are just a few bad apples”; “They are a fringe group.” We’ve heard these statements a million times from the mouths of radicalized conservative apologists and white progressives, whose “shallow understanding…is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” bemoaned Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yes, this is America, as it has always been. The evidence is its history. Yet a continued cognitive dissonance in the moderate white populace provides both shelter from accountability for white supremacist ideas and security in their white privilege, while marginalized and exploited people, particularly Black people, experience another America.
“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” -James Baldwin
Unity and healing as a nation means earnestly reckoning with the historic and present-day injustices that got us here. Unity after maltreatment or any breach in trust requires acknowledgment, remorse, responsibility, repair, and change. If America will ever know true racial harmony, if it will ever be worthy of the respect and honor it demands of those whom it has long betrayed, it must take these postures and actions. Anything less guarantees falling short of true reconciliation.
LAKETA SMITH is a mother and a social worker. A native of southwest Georgia, she now lives and works in North Carolina, where she is dedicated to cultivating liberation through food and land justice.