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OPINION

Triumph and infamy: Two views of January 6

On the day Black women helped fortify democracy, white men sought to tear it down.

A Trump supporter unleashed a smoke grenade in front of the US Capitol building on Wednesday.
A Trump supporter unleashed a smoke grenade in front of the US Capitol building on Wednesday.Eric Lee/Bloomberg

As white supremacist mobs, emboldened by the president of the United States, rampaged through the Capitol ransacking, looting, and posing for selfies with police officers, I received a text from my young cousin.

“If they were Black,” he wrote, “they all would’ve been shot.”

He’s recognized since his father gave him “the talk — the conversation that many Black parents have with their children because too many cops view Black lives as an inherent threat — that white supremacy is the ruling edict of American life. And it allows white people, even when their violence forces legislators to cower and fear for their lives, to do pretty much whatever they damn well please.

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Once, Klansmen wore hoods to conceal their identities. Now, law-breaking white terrorists show their faces and give their full names in interviews. That’s white privilege.

Joe Biden’s certification as the election’s winner was never in doubt. Neither was the fact that white rioters, encouraged by the loser who has infested the White House for four years, would more than disturb the peace. Or, for that matter, that these thugs trying to gut democracy would be treated with greater humanity than any Black person protesting in favor of their full participation in it.

“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” said Biden during a speech condemning the insurrection. “What we’re seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness.”

What we saw was a sampling of more than 74 million who voted for Trump. I’m long past entertaining any distinctions in the moral character of those who shattered windows or strolled around that hallowed building with a Confederate flag and those who cast their ballots for four more years of racism, anti-democratic mayhem, and lethal incompetence.

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“This doesn’t represent who we are” is often said by leaders trying to portray white supremacy as an ugly outlier instead of endemic. In a clumsy rush to move on, they inflict more trauma by pretending that the unquenchable fire of racism is no more than an occasional spark. These men and women quickly speak of what to do next, scurrying away from understanding why what happened keeps happening, and why it too often occurs with an impunity that excuses racist virulence.

Black people need no reminders of what this country is. (They’re never allowed to forget.) Yet that’s why they have worked, strategized, and persevered to push America toward the more perfect union it already believes itself to be. There is no more unrequited love than between Black people and their country — a country that routinely criminalizes and brutalizes them.

On Jan. 6, another day of infamy, many white men inside and outside the Capitol fought to tear down democracy. Let’s also remember how that day began in triumph fostered by the tireless organizing of many Black women who fought to build it up.

While anarchy reigned on our screens, Jon Ossoff, a disciple of John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights lion, won his Senate race against incumbent David Perdue. That completed a once-improbable Democratic sweep in Georgia’s special election that left the Senate with a 50-50 split; soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris will be the deciding vote.

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Ossoff joined the Rev. Raphael Warnock who, with his defeat of Kelly Loeffler, becomes the first Black senator to represent that state. This only happened because of the political genius of Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate turned founder of Fair Fight, which promotes voter rights and participation; LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter; and many allies and accomplices who saw glory in an unlikely place and seized it.

You’ll find no heroes in the insurrection riots that left four people dead. Instead, this democracy’s champions spent weeks knocking on doors, passing out fliers, and voting despite a pandemic made worse by a president guilty of egregious neglect. What happened in Georgia, and nationwide in November when a record number of voters looked at the current presidency and said, “Enough,” is a path toward equity, justice, and compassion — just as impervious whiteness is a barrier in a nation whose promises remain miserably incomplete.

America has always faced a choice between destruction and progress. On one extraordinary day, each side had its say. In Washington, an attempted coup by white supremacists was a reminder of what this nation is. Georgia, meanwhile, offered a glimpse of what America can still be if it finally stands up for Black people, especially women, the way they stand up for democracy.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.