In a Globe op-ed last June, I wrote that the national dialogue about racism and policing consistently ignored the root cause of the crisis: the system of white supremacy that infects every aspect of US political, economic, and social life.
After defining the problem and proposing strategies to end it, I concluded:
“It is much more likely … that the powers that be will offer Band-Aids and half measures, thus ensuring that white supremacy remains intact. Until this nation confronts white supremacy and commits to demolishing it brick by brick, police brutality, vigilante violence, and rampant inequality will continue and America will move closer to becoming a failed state.” (Emphasis added.)
Since the mob attack on the Capitol orchestrated by white supremacists, fomented by the white nationalist president, with five people dead, and threats of more violence, we have seen the latest manifestation of vigilantism and are closer to being a failed state than at any time since the Civil War.
Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington has accurately characterized what occurred on Jan. 6 as a Confederate attack. Pictures taken inside the Capitol of Confederate flags and people in “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (six million weren’t enough) shirts celebrating the Holocaust corroborate her assessment.
Now that white people realize white supremacy is coming for them, they’re paying more attention.
It is good that white people have noticed that peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors are treated more harshly than white insurrectionists. It is good that law enforcement agencies are finally prioritizing the surveillance and prosecution of organized domestic terrorists. But there is far more work to do to protect against white supremacy than demobilizing organized hate groups.
Systemic white supremacy is more pervasive, brutal, and efficient than most Americans — except those targeted by it — care to admit. The proposed government commission to investigate the Capitol attack could provide an opportunity to educate the nation about the complex nature of systemic white supremacy and the devastating impact that it has on every aspect of American life.
One question for the commission to explore that would vividly illustrate the power of white supremacy is why the outgoing president is so appealing that some of his followers are willing to attempt a violent coup. What exactly does he provide that they cannot bear to lose? I believe that Trump’s fundamental appeal has always been his unbridled bigotry. From the time that he came down the escalator in 2015 to announce his candidacy for president and characterized Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, he telegraphed a promise that he would restore America to its former glory as a white man’s country. It was obvious that “Make America Great Again” meant “Make America White Again.” Being a citizen of a nation where being “free, white, and 21″ carries the kind of weight that it did in the early 20th century is what millions have dreamed of, especially after suffering the indignity of a two-term Black president.
The fact that 74 million people witnessed four years of overt racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, attacks on immigrants, corruption, and incompetence, yet voted for it to continue, points to how deeply embedded the ideology of white supremacy is. For four years the head of government returned whiteness to its rightful place, staving off the frightening prospect of white people becoming a numerical minority. Seventy-four million people, although most of them will not admit it, do not want to give that up.
The myth of white racial superiority and dominance is in many ways a baseless conspiracy theory, but unlike other fallacies, America is built on this one, and it has provided tangible economic advantages to white people for centuries.
The incoming Biden administration sees reconciliation and healing as priorities, so I will say it one more time: There will be no actual healing in this country until white supremacy is vanquished. The United States has never seriously considered its robust and poisonous system of white supremacy an impediment to its well-being or ability to function. Maybe now it will.
Barbara Smith is an author and independent scholar who has been active in movements for social, racial, and economic justice since the 1960s. She is the coauthor of the Black feminist “Combahee River Collective Statement.” Follow her on Twitter @thebarbarasmith.