See also my recent essay,
“Trumpism and Césaire’s ‘Terrible Boomerang Effect’“
Jan 6, 2021 –
Letter to Students in My Courses on
White Supremacism and Social Justice
-by Professor Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary
PHOTO ABOVE RIGHT: At the Lincoln Memorial during ongoing protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)
The essay below was written on the evening of January 6, lightly edited on the morning of Jan. 7. A few additions were made on Jan 12 to reflect some recent disclosures about the Jan 6 assault, and those changes are shown in bold-face below. Of course these reflections will soon be dated as more knowledge comes to the fore.
You saw today the national spotlight fall on Trump’s white mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. As we close one semester now and are planning the next, I’ve heard from several of you about the attack, one of you referencing it as “a freakin’ day.” In many ways it is still too early to know all that happened at the Capitol today and also premature to be confident in knowledge about what is happening among power-holders. Let me try here some early thoughts.
I hasten to offer this prefatory note. I do not write this out of great surprise and shock that the U.S. Congress and the Capitol building could become targets of people’s rage. My own years of work in Latin America and U.S. communities have instilled in me a deep mistrust of the outcomes of U.S. government. Congress has often devised, tolerated and looked the other way when the lives of ordinary citizens, at home and abroad, are subjected to torture, unjust wars (covert and overt) and to retrenched poverty that leaves them suffering policies that enrich a wealthy few. Congress, especially when sold to its corporate donors, has “blood on its hands.”
But the Trump-incited mob members yesterday are not critics of that legacy of U.S. violence and impoverishment. They may have some legitimate grievances, but they are largely Christian nationalists who romance a white America, and who long to “make America great again” by revivifying the nation’s whiteness. Both liberals and conservatives – often regardless of their class status – will guard that whiteness, protect it. Trump’s mob allows the cancer of white supremacism that services U.S. power elites and their hold upon the nation.
When speaking of “white supremacism,” then, I refer to more than just the white power movement that long has simmered in the U.S. in its Neo-Nazi, Aryan Nation, Proud Boy and other forms. Nor do I refer simply to the racist hand-signs of Trump’s mobsters and their always ugly white supremacist actions. Yes, the flag poles they wielded at the Capitol were often brutal baseball bats, weaponizing the red-white-and-blue. The colors they carried included the immoral rag of the confederacy. Indeed, these organizations and their tactics are garbage from America’s racist past and present.
The most disturbing display of white racism, though, was the way our corporate system’s militarized police dawdled and coddled Trump’s thugs, allowing their racist temper tantrum to rampage for two or more hours. Note that police and security forces were largely absent in the opening hours of the Trump mob’s assault.
Trump’s white mob was handled with kid gloves by the nation’s policing forces. Many of the attackers did and will get away with their thuggery largely – if not only – because they were white. They also knew that their white nationalist champion was in the White House and had cheered them on. Were the Capitol Police – at least the whites among them in the Capitol – winking at them? Helping them? Naively thinking “hmm, they don’t look so bad?” Some, if not assisting in the assault were comfortable with mob elements. There are reports, for example, of Capitol Police taking selfies and sharing high-fives with Trump’s assaulters. On the other hand, some Capitol Police did offer up formidable resistance to the aggressors, often when they were largely outnumbered.
I know many of you in 2020 have walked with us as part of the millions of peaceful protestors in the Movement4Black lives and Black Lives Matter movements, and alongside people of all backgrounds. You remember also how the cops were regularly out in force along those same marches. At BLM protests, U.S. militarized police quickly mobilized against those protesting police violence against the innocent. See the mobilization of force that greeted BLM protestors at peaceful protest actions in D.C. in June 2020, as shown in the photo above of security forces at the Lincoln Memorial to greet protestors of George Floyd’s murder. The police came out so quickly with swinging clubs, handcuffs for protestors, SWAT teams and mobile tanks and tear-gas canisters. Today’s Trumpian white rioters at the Capitol – who were not peaceful protestors – suffered little or none of this policing.
The Trump rioters, and the ways they are both incited and coddled, are part of an ongoing white threat in the U.S. body politic today? Did you study their faces? While most of the media demonize the mob as made up of alien, crazy folk, they can also look remarkably familiar. If you are a white colleague reading this, you maybe now need to notice that those waging assault look like many of our friends on our campuses. They are also in our corporate boardrooms and in our religious institutions, in Christian Churches too. They surely manifest modes of Christianity that many Christians would declare to be a gross distortion of the faith, but the symbols well known to Christianity were on display. “Jesus in 2020” read one Trump mob banner at the Capitol. “Holy Bible” was printed on one rioter’s t-shirt. Many at the Capitol were dressed like hikers you might find in your favorite national park. Or, think about a white suburb, maybe your own. There, they fly their Trump flags and tout their attitudes. To my white friends let me say this: you know they look like you and me, like our families. And you know that their and our domination must be ended in all its forms.
More events will be unfolding in the wake of this assault on the Capitol. Our congressional representatives will need to cease their overly cautious proceduralism, and act quickly to remove the Klansman of fascist aspirations who currently occupies the White House. The links of Trump’s thuggery to corporate power and U.S. imperialism should also be exposed. Kelly Loeffler, the white CEO-connected senator in a Wall Street family, who lost her senate seat yesterday to Reverend Rafael Warnock had been hurling campaign speech epithets against him. Like a robocall you can’t turn off, Loeffler denounced Warnock daily, even hourly it seemed, as “radical,” “radical liberal” and “socialist.” This white woman, Loeffler, lost the senate to a distinguished Black leader who rose above her caricatures of him. The Trump/Loeffler connection points to the fact that Trump is no friend of the downtrodden working class. He poses as such from time to time, but in reality Trump is a self-serving pied-piper for the U.S. corporate class. Those he incites are often enlisted to service those very elites.
More facts than I have are needed to explain what we have seen at the U.S. Capitol today. I don’t know all the mechanisms of this failure of authority we saw. Perhaps Trump and his sycophants in Defense and National Security posts kept security forces away in the crucial moments, thus allowing Trump’s thugs to have their way, making possible the knowing winks, selfies, and high-fives that flourished between Trump’s mob and the Capitol Police. Again, if these were black and brown bodies, or Muslims and Arab-Americans, or migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean or elsewhere across the global South – if such as these had been attacking the U.S. Capitol, you know they would have been brutalized, shot and killed, beaten and deported. But now, many if not most of today’s white thugs may be sipping their beers back in their white neighborhoods, recounting stories of white assault as noble action.
In this moment, let us cultivate and discipline our own spirits of lament and rage. Let us renew our efforts for justice and peace, and work to root out every condition of governance, corporate power, and white supremacy that breed assaults like today’s.
In that spirit, I for one will again this January be teaching my course on “critical race theory.” It is an educational enterprise, by the way, which has been regularly singled out by name, then demonized and targeted by Trump’s executive orders and his obedient or like-minded white supremacist supporters. Those supporters can be found in Christian contexts and other settings – indeed at our own theological institution. All of us do well to find ever-new ways to continue our teaching and learning, so to expose and resist the forces of white supremacism and corporate power today.
There is so much more to say, to say better, to investigate and to clarify. In the meantime, keep active wherever and however you can. See you soon.
Best, Mark Taylor