A pro-Trump mob in thrall to White supremacy and incited by President Donald Trump laid siege to the US Capitol on January 6. With their Confederate flags and zip ties in hand, rioters sought to overturn the legitimate election that President-elect Joe Biden won two months ago.
Trump faces his second impeachment vote on Wednesday as a result of his role in the insurrection.
On top of so much else, the election in November made clear the political might of Black voters, who saw the ballot box as a means of protesting against Trump and the racial animus that he and his acolytes embody.
White backlash to racial equality – including an empowered Black electorate – isn’t unusual. In fact, what makes the dynamic disturbing is how common it’s been throughout US history. And the issue isn’t just the backlash itself. It’s also the fear (real or alleged) of backlash – fear that might hold back progress.
And while the attack on the Capitol was horrifying, it wasn’t the first manifestation of White backlash. In important ways, this episode echoed the past.
The years immediately following the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw the ratification of the three Reconstruction amendments. The 13th Amendment ended slavery; the 14th Amendment made it such that all people could be US citizens, regardless of race; and the 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
By the mid-1870s, though, the country had essentially abandoned its equal rights efforts, as Supreme Court decisions as well as Jim Crow laws and revanchist campaigns in the South eroded the civil, economic and political progress that Black Americans had gained.
White backlash was also apparent during the struggle for Black freedom in the mid-20th century.
As Black Americans fought to dismantle their country’s abiding system of racial caste – a battle that secured, among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – many of their White counterparts assailed such actions as excessive.
“For many White backlashers in the 1960s, the era of what the historian C. Vann Woodward called the ‘second Reconstruction,’ the first Reconstruction remained a negative model,” the Cornell University professor Lawrence Glickman wrote for The Atlantic last year. “They viewed its reform as overly fast-paced, and felt that it foregrounded Black civil rights at the cost of White people’s peace of mind.”
The rioters who violently took over the Capitol last week had a lot in common with their forebears, particularly in their expressions of White grievance and entitlement and in their zero-sum belief that sharing rights and resources isn’t a gain for everyone but, instead, a loss that White Americans shouldn’t have to endure.
It was no coincidence that “Stop the Steal” was one of the mob’s rallying cries. It referred to cities with high Black populations that broke for Biden and was said in support of Trump, whom the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2017 called the country’s “first White president.”
Crucially, while Trump’s loss in November – and more precisely, the outgoing President’s false claims that a free and fair election was fraudulent – was the most immediate catalyst of last week’s iteration of White backlash, Trump didn’t create the underlying racial resentment.
“It was White backlash, but the seeds were already there,” Seyward Darby, the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine and the author of the 2020 book “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism,” told CNN.
Last July, Darby warned of possible backlash to the reenergized Black Lives Matter protests.
“Once Trump is no longer President, I worry that people are going to attempt to move past this faster than they should, that they’re going to say: Now back to some semblance of normalcy. But the unrest had been growing even before Trump,” she added in a recent interview.
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The deadly assault on the Capitol has fit into the history of White backlash in another way, too: in how it has influenced – or really, circumscribed – conversations on what an “acceptable” path forward looks like.
Consider that while some Republican lawmakers have called on Trump to resign over inciting the mob, others have asked Democrats not to pursue impeachment, fretting that such a move would be divisive and cause havoc.
It’s the sort of thinking that prizes reconciliation over justice.
“For some in power, the reason not to impeach isn’t an argument based on politics or on justice but on the notion that if you want to stay out of trouble, then you shouldn’t impeach. This sentiment is common,” Glickman told CNN. “In other words, White backlash can obstruct progress, but it’s not always the backlash itself but the threat of backlash that impedes progress in US history.”
That said, Glickman detected something of a silver lining to the events of the past week.
While the seizure of the Capitol demonstrated anew that White backlash can lead to a brutal end, Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5 illustrated that it’s possible to thwart weaponized racial grievance.
In those races, voters elected Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – a Black man and a Jewish man – to the US Senate. Their victories, propelled by Black organizers’ efforts, evoked the poignant history of the civil rights movement.
“(Republican opponents) Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue tried very hard to make traditional backlash arguments the centerpieces of their campaigns, but it didn’t work,” Glickman said, referring to Republican attacks on Warnock, especially, as “dangerous” and “radical.”
In this wider context, Democrats’ recent political triumphs feel all the more significant.
“I think that it’s important not to predict that we’re fated to be controlled by White backlash,” Glickman said. “Because that doesn’t give Americans enough credit for their own agency in determining our future.”