On 13 February 2021, the US Senate failed to convict former President Donald Trump for his involvement in the events of 6 January. On that day, a crowd of white nationalists, incited by Trump, stormed the US Capitol in an unlawful and anti-democratic attempt to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. That the mob did so while draped in flag regalia, lobbing accusations of treason, and referring to the Capitol as “our house” seems, on the surface, to exceed what the term hypocrisy can capture.
White nationalism is not a marginal ideology, however; it has long been a part of the warp and weft of American society. It is more than advocacy for an all-white nation. It encompasses the belief that white people do and should have a privileged relationship to the state and the law. It is the strength of this relationship that allowed Trump to be acquitted of crimes committed in plain sight. While spectacles of violence, like the events at the Capitol, are central to the public conception of white nationalism, it is quotidian acts of racist degradation that have perpetuated white nationalist ideas and laid the groundwork for such outbursts over this nation’s life span. To expose the roots of the storming of the US Capitol, we must turn our gaze away from the rarefied aisles of Congress and towards the more mundane aisles of the Jim Crow grocery store.
Lynching is perhaps the most quintessential expression of white supremacist exceptionalism in recent history. White mobs openly violated the laws, procedures, and norms of the justice system and government to seek violent retribution for crimes and slights; real and imagined. They revelled, gawked, took barefaced photos, and grabbed souvenirs. Law enforcement officers were often unwilling and unprepared to intervene. While these spectacular acts of violence loom large in our collective memory, day to day life in the Jim Crow era was fraught with racist norms and inequitable treatment that cheapened Black life.
Stretching from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, Jim Crow was defined by the creation of a set of laws and norms mandating segregation. While segregation is often remembered as total separation along lines of race, it was a complex, contradictory system in practice. Some spaces, like schools, were discrete institutions. In other spaces, like movie theaters, Black and white people were present, but separated by distance or a barrier. Black domestics performed physically intimate care work in white homes. The purpose of segregation was not to keep Black and white people separate, but rather to maintain white supremacy.
Food shopping as a Black person in the mid-twentieth century South encompassed a broad range of experiences. Grocery stores could be owned by Black people and recent immigrants of Lebanese and Chinese heritage, as well as white people. White-owned stores did serve Black customers, sometimes predominantly or exclusively. Within these spaces of interracial encounter, racist norms and inequitable treatment served to remind Blacks of their place. Black customers were required to wait behind any white customers present. If Black customers bought on credit, they were often subject to exorbitant interest rates and inaccurate tallies. To avoid losses, proprietors sold Black customers inferior or spoiled goods. These policies both reflected and reproduced anti-Black attitudes as white proprietors concretized Black inferiority for themselves and their customers, day in and day out.
Given how deeply embedded the dehumanization of Black people was within this culture, it is unsurprising that attempts by Black customers to challenge these norms often triggered anti-Black violence. Two separate incidents in Atlanta during World War II demonstrate these conflicts. Both Ruby Moton and Lillian Banks purchased tainted meat at their local Piggly Wiggly. Each attempted to return it. In Moton’s case, the manager and butcher of the store slapped, beat, and choked her. A nearby police officer arrested Moton, who was pregnant at the time. In Bank’s case, the store manager, R.L. Brown, hit her in the face with a metal scoop, beat her with a gallon-sized jar of vinegar, and punched her. During the testimony at his trial, the defendant, Brown, stated, “I lost my temper and I hit her just as hard as I possibly could and felt that I was perfectly justified in doing to her what I did.” In spite of this admission of guilt, an all-white-jury acquitted Brown in fifteen minutes.
An important feature of each of these attacks is how certain both store managers were that their blatantly illegal conduct would go unpunished. Each man believed that his position as a white man entitled him to a privileged relationship with the state. Their actions implied that they were not merely above the law, but acted as its very embodiment. The state’s refusal to intervene or hold them accountable demonstrates that this was a shared understanding. Incidents like these taught Southerners what it meant to be a white citizen, in the sense of its rights, prerogatives, and limits. Racialized attacks in grocery stores were far from rare. There was a conflict over apples in Norlina, North Carolina in 1922 that led to a lynching. A request for a refund in Jackson, Mississippi culminated in a beating in 1962. The most infamous lynching in American history, that of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, began with a supposed breach of decorum in a grocery store.
To this day, the behaviour of white citizens across America is shaped by a belief in a personal authority to determine where Black people belong and what they are allowed to do. This manifests a variety of ways, including calling the police on Black residents barbecuing, bird watching, and swimming. It is also evident in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis. These young men violated something more sacred than the law. They violated a white men’s sense of racialized geography and social hierarchy. They were out of order.
President Trump and his supporters’ lies about the election sprouted within this same ideological soil. They did not target majority black municipalities, such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta, by accident. Their allegations did not emerge from evidence, but rather the search for evidence emerged from the allegation. Undergirding this was the notion that Black political participation is inherently illegitimate. The assault on the Capitol reflects an ongoing belief in white people’s prerogative to contravene the letter of the law to ensure that America remains a country for white men.
Long before the Capitol attack, white supremacists made no secret of their willingness to use violence to serve their political goals. The attacks in Charleston in 2015, Charlottesville in 2017, Pittsburgh in 2018, and El Paso in 2019 were all red flags. The most troubling aspect of the events of 6 January is not the attack itself. It is rather that the government did not prepare to fend it off, in spite of receiving ample warning. Those in charge of security at the Capitol could not conceive of this majority white group as a threat; their collective whiteness signalled their belonging and allowed them to grow unchecked.
As the days after the attack turn into weeks, two major schools of thought have emerged on how best to respond. One camp issues calls for unity that ring hollow in the absence of accountability. The other plans to wield the United States’ deeply flawed apparatus of policing and criminal justice to punish those involved. The criminal justice system, however, has little appetite for punishing white people. This group will – indeed has already begun to – receive preferential treatment. Black and brown youths languish in jail for lack of bail money, while rioters sleep in their own beds. It is also worth considering that prisons and jails are more renowned for incubating white supremacy than reforming it. We must exercise a foresight shaped by history. The very tools that are deployed against this mob, such as strengthened anti-terrorism statutes, will ultimately be turned back on the most vulnerable among us.
Those of us invested in building a more egalitarian society in the United States cannot afford to be seduced by calls for a return to normalcy. Our rule of law, our social order allows for rampant gun violence, mass incarceration, astronomical wealth inequality, an ongoing assault on voting rights, racialized health disparities, the abridgement of indigenous people’s sovereignty, and a border that allows for the free flow of capital while policing the flow of people. White supremacy is not the exception; it is the rule.
For all its chaos and heartbreak, 6 January 2021 also offered lessons for how to move forward, if we are willing to turn our gaze south of the Capitol to Georgia. On that same day, years of organizing efforts spearheaded by Black women paid off as Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won twin runoff races and secured control of the Senate for the Democratic Party. That Warnock and Ossoff are also Georgia’s first Black and Jewish senators adds to the spectacular nature of the occasion. However, the enduring hope this occasion supplies lies in the mundane. Everyday people registered voters, knocked on doors, arranged transportation, disseminated information, and discussed and debated with family, friends, and neighbours. What happened in Georgia should remind us of the power of ordinary people to work collectively, in a manner neither organized by the state nor apathetic to its power, to advocate for their own self-interest and achieve a common goal.
These tactics are the product of generations of Black resistance to white supremacy. The violence against Ruby Moton, Lillian Banks, and Emmett Till was not met with silence. We know these particular names because their communities spoke out. Black newspapers documented these attacks. A coalition – including her sorority, the NAACP, the Atlanta Civil and Political League, the Grady Homes Tenant Association – formed on Moton’s behalf. They issued public calls for Black shoppers to withhold commerce from businesses that engaged in racist practices. Mamie Till’s courageous choice to hold an open casket funeral sparked international outrage and the Civil Rights Movement.
Accountability has become the watchword amongst those horrified by the vile white nationalist politics on full display at the Capitol. The question that ought to shape our conduct in the weeks and months ahead is not how we hold former President Trump or the mob he inspired accountable. It is rather how we hold ourselves accountable to working collectively to combat white supremacy as it manifests in our everyday lives and communities. This process requires the moral clarity to name acts of quotidian racial degradation for what they really are: the quiet precedents for spectacular calamities to come. The attack on the Capitol was a warning, and one we must heed. There are no more excuses for being unprepared.