Exploring Longstanding Historial Patterns
Two weeks ago, carrying confederate flags and weapons, rioters stormed the Capitol as Congress certified President Joe Biden’s victory.
Two weeks ago, carrying confederate flags and weapons, rioters stormed the Capitol as Congress certified President Joe Biden’s victory. Representatives were hurriedly ushered away as rioters smashed windows and pushed through doors. The United States—and the world as a whole—watched in horror as the insurrectionists (in truth, the terrorists) stormed the halls, rifled through the contents of lawmakers’ offices and desks, and proudly waved the Confederate flag in the Capitol (an unprecedented violation of that building). Yet this riot and the recent unrest in the United States is not as abrupt or surprising as it may seem. In order to begin to move forward and heal as a country, it is crucial to understand that the rioters are a reflection of long-standing historical patterns of upholding white supremacy—Trump merely lit the match for a pre-existing bonfire.
The insurrection on January 6th, first and foremost, was a violent and treacherous manifestation of Trumpism, a modern mixture of populism and white supremacy. Trump incited his supporters just before the riots, using his speech at a rally to “give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” Yet that sentiment—the need to “take back” the country—has been central to Trump’s platform long before January 6th. Trump rose to power by preying on the fears of (predominantly) white people who felt as though their grip on society was slipping, giving white supremacy a proud and public voice. He used “dogwhistle” phrases to directly appeal and communicate with that target audience. For example, his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” implied a return to an isolationist society that catered to white Americans, and nearly 62 million Americans responded to that promise in 2016. Throughout his presidency, he continued to call on and defend supporters such as white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and even the Capitol rioters. Yet this age of Trumpism and violence is nothing new; rather, it’s a more explicit and obvious version of what’s been going on for decades.
Our country has endeavored in two major attempts to build a nation true to its promises: both Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement ended in disappointment as the country reverted to white supremacy. After the end of the Civil War came the mass emancipation of Blacks in the country, but with the assassination of Lincoln, and subsequent failure of Reconstruction—hope was quickly extinguished. The monstrosity of Jim Crow, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1896, the overt usage of Social Darwinism to justify unchecked free-market economics during the Gilded Age, and the fallacy of the Lost Cause all contributed to an overt attempt to reestablish and maintain white power. This was embodied by the return of the KKK and the country’s lackluster response; instead of a launching a massive federal effort akin to Grant’s 1871 KKK Act, the country faltered in the face of domestic terrorism. This type of inaction contributed to atrocities such as the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, which saw the most prosperous black neighborhood in the country burned down by a mob of angry whites (aided by city officials). Thus, in the hundred years between Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movements, white supremacy was firmly embedded in American society.
While our country celebrates the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, we likewise forget the aspects of modern conservatism that rejected Dr. King’s Dream through more coded methods. As the black community rose up against injustice in a more forceful way, responding to the assassination of Dr. King, the crackdown on the Black Panther Party, politics swung right, and voters, white voters in particular, were more than happy to embrace social changes that reverted the society back decades. The black community watched in despair as the dog-whistle politics of cleaning up neighborhoods, being tough on crime, waging a war on drugs (by attacking drug users), and making America great again overtook the nation. Unsurprisingly, a man who former President Trump holds in high esteem, Ronald Reagan, used this rhetoric, and played a major role in instigating these policies. The over-policing of black neighborhoods, mass incarceration, campaigning against affirmative action in schools and jobs and even attempting to veto the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act on claims of “reverse racism”—these are the seeds of Trumpism, and the values of his supporters. Thus, when many decry that Trump has forever tarnished the party of Reagan, they overlook the fact that Reagan may have packaged his policies under a lighthearted and palatable facade, but the effects of these policies are exactly what Trump has advocated for.
With the Biden administration comes an opportunity for change; however, we cannot move forward from the Capitol riots or the events leading up to it without understanding their historical basis. The permeation of white supremacist doctrine into the fabric of American history means that we must not only come to terms with blatant attempts to capitalize on these sentiments, but also the way modern politics has coded racist language. In reality, schools across the United States (both public and private) must adapt history curricula to reflect who we are and where we come from. If this new generation is able to recognize historical patterns and their modern-day manifestations, they will be better equipped to fulfill the promise of our multiracial democracy.