When Black Empowerment Fuels White Rage

White rage stems from Black empowerment — these terrorists feel like power was stolen from them

Pro-Trump extremists near the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

White grievance against Black enfranchisement was the main theme of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Listen to the on-the-scene interviews given by Trump supporters who viciously stormed Congress with confederate flags and swastikas on the false premise that the federal election was “stolen” from them. “They work for us,” said one angry terrorist in live footage from ITV News amid screams of “U.S.A.,” and “Stop the steal!” Others told the ITV reporter:

You guys did this to us! We want our country back!”

“This is our house. This is our country. This is our country.”

“We all know that they changed the rules!”

Exactly what “rules” were changed? Clear in this rhetoric, which has been flagrantly encouraged by Donald Trump and his Republican sycophants in Congress, is a sense of White nationalist ownership over the country and its political functions — and most importantly, the notion that these political functions should always work in their favor. Those were the rules. That was how “their” country was supposed to work.

Historically, that’s how it did work. Systemic voter suppression and centuries-long attempts to disenfranchise Black populations were supposed to guarantee that policy would be dictated by and for White privilege. But something changed with the national election and Georgia Senate runoffs. Thanks to the efforts of largely Black female activists, organizers, and politicians like Stacey Abrams, Black voters showed up in record numbers. Joe Biden, whose presidential run was resurrected in the primaries by Rep. James Clyburn and Black South Carolinians, eventually went on to win the November presidential election because of Black turnout in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Massive Black voter engagement then turned the Senate blue by handing Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff wins in the January Georgia runoffs.

Black populations exercising their rights as citizens “stole” something cherished by those who benefit from White supremacy: power.

So when days after the November election, Trump repeated Newt Gingrich’s claim on Fox & Friends that “Where it mattered, they stole what they had to steal”? When two days before the insurrection, Trump told his MAGA rally in Dalton, Georgia that “They’re not taking this White House”? And when at the same rally, one of his supporters told reporters, “They stole it. Us Southern men, we feel like we’ve been betrayed”? Ask yourself: Who is “they”? Trump and his followers weren’t simply referring to Democrats. The implication behind their words is that Black participation in elections was the true crime. It went against the rules. Black populations exercising their rights as citizens “stole” something cherished by those who benefit from White supremacy: power. That is why praises of Black voter turnout on the day of the Georgia elections soon turned into horror and disbelief over scenes of domestic terrorism the very next day.

There is a reason why entire systems have been created to depress the Black vote. With Black enfranchisement comes the power to tip policy towards social justice and equality. That is exactly what those in America desperately clinging to their power and privilege fear most. But make no mistake: the White terrorists that stormed the Capitol are not simply parroting Trumpian rhetoric. This cycle of White retribution against Black empowerment has long been a feature of White supremacy.

During this era, White anxiety over Black equality and the danger it posed to White patriarchal power was covertly represented in the White nationalist rhetoric of “the Black threat.”

As always we must consider history to contextualize the present. As Shawn Michelle Smith, Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago writes in her article, “Afterimages: White Womanhood, Lynching, and the War in Iraq,” that America’s bloody Reconstruction era saw thousands of documented instances of lynching. This lynching was a White nationalist form of terrorism aimed at stamping out the new potential for the sociopolitical, legal, and economic empowerment of African Americans in the wake of emancipation. During this era, White anxiety over Black equality and the danger it posed to White patriarchal power was covertly represented in the White nationalist rhetoric of “the Black threat.” Just like the language of MAGA supporters after losing the federal and Georgia senate elections, “the Black threat” was framed as a kind of theft. Black people were stealing something from the White patriarchal structure.

In the post-slavery era, this idea of theft was couched in the newly imagined fantasy of Black men raping White women in order to justify violent White retaliation against them. As Smith writes, “the threat African Americans posed to a White patriarchal power structure was symbolically figured through their newly imagined access to the bodies of White women.” This fantasy served to justify the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, who you can see celebrated as the protector of White women against “the Black threat” in films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. “Indeed,” Smith writes, “as anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells demonstrated in the 1890s, the rhetoric of rape and revenge was so widespread, and so effective of converting murder into a form of ‘justified’ retribution in the eyes of legal authorities and a wider (White) public, that the cry of rape eventually could simply be assumed as the explanation for lynching.”

Fantasies often act as a cover for true anxieties, fears, and desires. The unhinged fantasies and conspiracy theories repeated by Trump supporters throughout the recent MAGA insurrection of the Capitol served as a cover for the same grievance Black rape did in the 1890s: White nationalists losing political ground to Black justice. And at the center of this cycle of Black empowerment and White retribution is anti-democratic and anti-Black violence. It was in the 1890s, November 10, 1898 to be exact, that an angry White mob burned down the office of a Black newspaper, murdered scores of Black townspeople, and violently overthrew the biracial city government of Wilmington, North Carolina. Another White insurrection.

None of this is new. We cannot cast Trump supporters as innocent suckers of a charismatic con man, nor can we simply blame Trump, his rhetoric, and his enablers for the domestic terrorism attempt against U.S. democracy. They are to blame, to be sure, but they only took advantage of the ideological anti-Black hatred that is already deeply embedded at the heart of American society and institutions. “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” The cycle of Black empowerment and White retribution continues in part through a collective refusal to acknowledge America’s violent history, and by pretending as though this history is not presently affecting everyday lived realities. White anxiety transforms into bloody attempts to hold onto power. It is an endless cycle that will continue until it is named, confronted, and dismantled.

Scholar of critical race, youth and postcolonial studies. Human Rights Research & Education Centre, Ottawa University. Children’s author and magical black girl.

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