I have long believed that inequality is the greatest threat to justice—and, the corollary, that white supremacy is the greatest threat to democracy. But what has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.
This explains the white backlash that has plagued American politics from its beginnings and throughout these last four years. It also casts a light on what we witnessed yesterday: A failed coup—an insurrection at the United States Capitol.
Like so many others, I watched, aghast, as a mob stormed our revered temple of representative democracy—and on a day when another 3,865 Americans fell victim to the raging coronavirus pandemic.
The world was shaken by a shocking, odious sight: Confederate battle flags inside the National Statuary Hall; gallows with nooses on the National Mall outside. With glee, two rioters reenacted the murder of George Floyd on the steps of the National City Christian Church—one kneeling on the neck of the other, fully aware of the cameras capturing their laughter. Four people lost their lives.
There is no misunderstanding the message, nor the mission.
And make no mistake: If these had been peaceful protestors for racial justice rather than violent combatants for white pride and grievance, law enforcement would have used extreme force, if not live bullets, to keep the building secure. We know for sure because this is exactly what happened only a few months ago, as federal forces tear-gassed the peaceably assembled outside the White House to clear the area for a photo-op. As the inimitable, incisive Isabel Wilkerson Tweeted in real time, “we have seen caste in action.”
I, too, cannot see yesterday’s insurrection as anything other than the latest chapter in a long, dispiriting, exhausting history. And yet, from this very same history, I also—perhaps, paradoxically—draw hope.
I’m hopeful because, from our founding contradiction, we have emerged a freer, fairer nation. All too slowly, all too unevenly, all too imperfectly—and at far too high a cost—we, the people, have struggled to root out the strand of white supremacy in our country’s DNA.
Our founding aspirations were just that: aspirations. It’s been the work of generations—from Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer to Harriet Tubman and Bayard Rustin—to realize these aspirations. And while much remains to be done, and undone, I believe we can emerge—and are emerging—a more unified, more equal, more just, more American America.
Yes, the ideal of democracy is the greatest threat to the ideology of white supremacy; neither can long endure in the presence of the other. That is why today—and every day—we must renew our commitment to protect our democratic values and institutions from all enemies, foreign and domestic, especially those falsely disguised as patriots.
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Illustration by Olha Khorimarko