White privilege committed a putsch at the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. Backed into a corner, fearful its unquestioned authority faced total erosion by the reality of a multicultural world, white privilege took their grievances to the home of American democracy itself, with the goal of destroying it. Based on footage of what actually went down inside the halls of the Capitol, the country was a doorway away from mobs attacking the Members of Congress. A doorway away from utter chaos.
White privilege panicked upon the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Those threatened by a Black president disparaged his wife and children, calling the dignified family all sorts of names. And chief among the charges leveled against President Obama was the birther business. He’s not American, they said, meaning he’s not one of us: white. An old trope, its roots dating back to slavery and the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Blacks could never be US citizens. The 14th Amendment overturned Dred Scott, granting former slaves and their American-born descendants full citizenship. But 153 years later, the rights of full citizenship remain elusive.
Donald Trump leapt upon the birther conspiracy, nurtured it, and kept it afloat. Thus, he became the darling of white privilege, its chief spokesperson. A fitting role for him. His whole life has been the best example of white privilege at work. Trump lacks political or military experience, typical credentials for any presidential candidate. He had a mediocre career in college and his history as a businessman includes numerous bankruptcies. Though he shares writing credit, his “coauthor” Tony Schwartz wrote his most famous book, The Art of the Deal, in its entirety. Despite this parade of mediocrity and failure, Trump won the 2016 election, albeit with the aid of America’s peculiar presidential election system, the Electoral College. He lost the popular vote by over 3 million votes.
With a lackluster background and an election win aided by an antiquated voting system devised to keep the then-slave states happy, Donald Trump is the poster child of white privilege. Small wonder he became its champion.
By contrast, the first Black president was the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated from Harvard Law magna cum laude. He was a member of the Illinois Senate and later of the US Senate. In 2008, detractors ignored all that and simply labeled him a community organizer. Erasing the accomplishments of Black folks, to fit a certain agenda, is nothing new. For years after becoming a Nobel laureate, I continued to see Toni Morrison referred to in newspapers as a Pulitzer prize winning author, as if the higher honor never happened.
None of this mattered, however. Trump represents a reclamation of white privilege, a return to normal for those who ardently support him. “Normal” means a society where Black lives don’t matter, where LGBTQ lives don’t matter, where only immigrants from Europe matter, where women know their place.
When threatened, these defenders of white privilege lash out with evil intent. (Look up the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.) January 6 should not come as a surprise. A group of insurrectionists plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer last summer. Violence is their calling card.
Donald Trump knows this. He has continuously lied and used inflammatory language to incite the worst instincts of his supporters. His speech at the January 6 rally amounted to a call to arms against the Congress and even his own Vice President, labeling them all traitors. His words directly sparked the putsch.
Here’s the thing, though. Trump and his followers want to overturn the election for two different reasons. Though Trump is the poster child of white privilege and a long-time racist, his main reason for wanting to stay in the White House is to avoid losing his immunity from criminal prosecution. Despite his incessant lying, he knows what he’s done, how much he owes to different individuals and entities, including the US Treasury. He knows he will face a world of hurt the moment he steps out of office.
His supporters, though, see only his position as the mouthpiece for their white privilege. “Make America Great Again.” “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump spoke their language, and for that they are willing to support him, even if it means kidnapping a sitting governor. Even if it means invading the Capitol and endangering Members of Congress, Senators, and the Vice President.
Importantly, the insurrectionists’ own white privilege allowed them to get as far as they did with the putsch. Black folks would have been summarily shot on sight the minute they started running past barriers and towards the Capitol. While many officers fought hard to defend the Capitol and the Congress (one officer died), some officers stood aside and allowed the insurrectionists access to the building. Some took selfies with them. And some gently escorted them out during the aftermath. I’m reminded of when police took Dylann Roof to Burger King after he slaughtered nine people in cold blood. By contrast, police in Baltimore did not take Freddie Gray, who had not committed murder, to get food.
While at UCLA, I heard History Professor E. Bradford Burns say many times that oppressed peoples will not go into the 21st century shackled to the institutions of the 19th. Folks wedded to the 19th century—lynchings and Jim Crow, the subjugation of women, the utter destruction of Native Americans, the invisibility and denial of LGBTQ folks—know this. That’s why they will fight like hell to keep the world from changing. Even if it means burning down their own house, our House, the People’s House, to do so.