An enraged White man thrusts the sharp point of an American flagpole toward a helpless Black man. A snarling police dog lunges at a civil rights protester. A White police officer presses his knee on the neck of an unconscious Black suspect.
Each of these blistering images from history changed the way Americans talked about race and exposed truths that many had long denied.
The January 6 assault on the US Capitol has added some new entries to that grim gallery. Many Americans are still reeling from seeing images of what’s been called a “White riot” – an assault on Congress by supporters of President Donald Trump, which left five people dead.
It’s been described as “the most dramatic challenge to the US democratic system since the civil war,” but its impact on racial justice has been undersold.
Many have noted the racial dimensions to the insurrection, in which at least one Capitol rioter carried a Confederate flag. One commentator said that if the mob was Black, the Capitol’s marbled “hallways would be red with their blood.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the mob chose their “whiteness over democracy.”
But I believe the Capitol riot could have a far-reaching impact on racial justice in America – bigger, even, than last summer’s George Floyd protests. In some ways, it already has.
Here are five reasons why the Capitol insurrection offers an opportunity for transformative change.
It’s damaged Trumpism in a way that no other controversy has
Consider the impact of last year’s George Floyd protests – what they did, and what they failed to do.
Floyd’s death last May at the hands of a White police officer in Minnesota sparked what some consider the largest protest movement in American history.
An estimated 15 to 26 million Americans of all races took to the streets to protest police brutality last summer. Local and state politicians proposed laws to reform policing and combat racism. Corporations posted Black Lives Matter on their websites. Sales of anti-racism books soared.
But here’s what the protests didn’t do: They didn’t stop Trump from getting 74 million votes six months later in November’s election – more than any president before him.
Trump may be leaving office, but his corrosive influence isn’t going away. Critics say the President is responsible for returning White supremacy to mainstream politics. For years, a large segment of White America continued to support him no matter what he said or did. The Floyd protests didn’t loosen Trump’s hold on the Republican party or large swaths of White America.
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The fallout from the Capitol assault, though, may cause irreversible damage to Trump’s brand. The House of Representatives impeached him – again – for inciting violence against the US government. Some Republican lawmakers are now openly breaking with him. His approval rating has