The neo-fascist thugs who invaded the Capitol on January 6th, incited by bullyboy Trump and his Congressional and media enablers, certainly reflect dangerous new tendencies in the expression of white supremacist terror. However, as I’ve argued in my article, “The Long Life of Institutional White Supremacist Terror” and my book, Weaponized Whiteness (Haymarket 2020), these trends have deep roots in the historical construction of white identity politics.
These trends have deep roots in the historical construction of white identity politics.
As an outgrowth of the establishment of a regime of social control that attempted to incorporate all whites into a relatively privileged space vis-à-vis Native people and people of African descent, the politics of whiteness represent a long, albeit contested, institutional and ideological legacy. Whiteness, therefore, has a long history of being weaponized in order to terrorize and otherwise dominate racialized others in the United States and abroad. A review of some of those instances should underscore the point made by Kai Wright in his 2017 essay, “White Identity Politics and American Terrorism,” in The Nation: “There is no road forward for progressive politics without confronting white identity politics…(including) owning the legacy of white terrorism.”
The institutionalization of settler colonialism and racial capitalism in the colonial past appropriated resources and labor, allocating hierarchical value on the basis of social constructed racial categories. While the Indigenous suffered dispossession by white settler accumulation, Africans were possessed, increasingly through torture and rape, in order to accumulate profit. Hence, white settler expansion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries unleashed white supremacist terror against racialized others.
Of course, there are many instances of the terror and perfidy of the U.S. government towards Native peoples on the North American continent. One of the most egregious examples was the Wounded Knee Massacre. Over 300 men, women, and children were slaughtered on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in 1890. Medals were awarded to the commanders and soldiers who carried out this massacre. When the federal government finally apologized for this outrage almost one hundred years later, it was at the exact time that President George H.W. Bush sent the military into an unlawful invasion of Panama. In turn, this led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians by the invading U.S. forces.
In certain respects, the recent siege of the U.S. Capitol by marauding white supremacist mobs is an example of the “chickens coming home to roost.” The role of U.S. sponsored coups right up to recent times under both Democratic and Republican Administrations provided ideological cover to such actions whether initiated by the military as in Chile in 1973 (Nixon/Kissinger) and Honduras in 2009 (Obama/Clinton). The U.S. has continued to sponsor thuggish efforts, arrayed in the clothing of well-dressed “democrats,” to overturn elections in places like Venezuela. It’s not surprising that these freebooting forces in Venezuela are from the privileged white sectors of the population there.
Looking back on the inception and development of slavery on the North American continent, everywhere one looks, whether on the auction block, in slave labor camps, in the forced break-up of families and brutal migrations, one can find evidence that racial capitalism exacted a terrible toll of the enslaved through the daily practice of the iron fist of white supremacy. Whites not directly engaged in these sadistic practices were, nonetheless, incorporated into regimes of discipline and repression in slave patrols. The primary purpose of the slave patrol was to uphold slavery, from tracking down runaways to returning them to their enslavers.
This legacy of being granted a license to kill African Americans continues to inform the role of policing and the white hysteria around Black Lives Matter. Permeating those whites whose racial resentments fueled Trump’s followers, one of those invaders of the U.S. Capitol was shocked by the limited and compromised police response aimed at them. This person was quoted as saying that the people who deserved being shot were Black Lives Matter advocates not these “patriotic” whites.
These whites scaling the walls of the Capitol were undoubtedly the same ones who roared at Trump’s Nuremberg-like rallies to “Build the Wall” and applauding Trump’s viciousness at the border – a “viciousness…that has a long history.” As Greg Grandin goes on to argue, “if the U.S. is to climb out of the moral abyss it has fallen into, it has to think well beyond Trump’s malice. It needs a historical reckoning with the true cause of the border crisis: the long brutal history of border enforcement itself” (The End of the Myth, 2019).
The white brutes who populated the ranks of border enforcement from those KKK members of the 1920s to those today who violently suppress the desperate refugees from countries like Honduras, where the U.S. helped create the conditions that motivated fleeing migrants, should not escape this reckoning. Nor should those who incited the white mobs streaming into the Capitol building be beyond legal retribution. While the domestic terrorists in the D.C. rampage felt emboldened to manifest their white arrogance, they are already facing repercussions for their stupidity in nakedly broadcasting their white identity politics.
Ultimately, however, it is up to us to confront the continued pernicious presence of white identity politics. As Timothy Tyson writes in the conclusion to his recently published compelling history of the Emmett Till murder: “All of us must develop the moral vision and political will to crush white supremacy – both the political program and the concealed assumptions. We have to come to grips with our own history – not only genocide, slavery, exploitation, and systems of oppression, but also the legacies of those who resisted and fought back and still fight back” (2017).