COMMENTARY

One year later, mainstream media still doesn't see Jan. 6 attack as racial

Jan. 6 was literally a white supremacist assault on democracy. Has anyone in the media come out and said that?

By Chauncey DeVega

Published January 18, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Protesters gather on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud in an to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them in a joint session of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Protesters gather on the second day of pro-Trump events fueled by President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud in an to overturn the results before Congress finalizes them in a joint session of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Public opinion polls and other research have repeatedly shown that white racist attitudes, whether presented as "old-fashioned" racism or in less direct fashion as racial resentment and racial hostility, are strongly associated with support for Donald Trump and his Republican fascist movement. It is certainly true that feelings of economic insecurity, inequality and social alienation among the white working class are central to understanding the rise of American neofascism. But throughout American history, those forces have primarily manifested through white racism in its various forms.

As social theorist Stuart Hall described this dynamic: "Race is the modality in which class is lived."

W.E.B. Du Bois explained it this way in a memorable passage from "Black Reconstruction":

Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own "niggers." To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white.

President Lyndon Johnson offered a famous observation in a similar vein: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

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In this sense, the Age of Trump is the latest iteration of a much older politics of white rage and white supremacy whose origins extend well back before the Founding.

Last January Trump's agents and allies attempted to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Their plot consisted of a multifaceted nationwide plan to disqualify Joe Biden's votes -- and some participants literally suggested deploying the military after declaring a national state of emergency to cement Trump's control over the country.

The evidence shows that the Capitol attack of Jan. 6 was an integral component of Trump's coup attempt, intended to delay the certification of the Electoral College votes and prevent the final and formal election of Biden as president. In none of these events was race in any way a peripheral or irrelevant issue.

It is simply factual to describe Jan. 6 as a white supremacist attack on multiracial democracy. But if one were to rely on the consensus of the America's mainstream news media on the one-year anniversary, one might come away with the belief that racism and white supremacy played little or no role in the events of that day.

Very few of the personal essays and reflections from journalists and others who were at the Capitol or nearby on Jan. 6 explicitly mentioned that Trump's attack force was almost entirely all white. Instead, those accounts depicted a race-less and colorless horde of angry political hooligans attempting to overthrow American democracy.

Other writing about the events of Jan. 6 focused more impersonally on the role of authoritarianism and "populism." But again, the specific racial marker was missing: It was not described as "white" populism or "white" authoritarianism or, better yet, "white fascism," "white terrorism" or "white violence."


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Likewise, Trump's attack force and coup plotters were involved in an "insurrection" — but not a "white" insurrection. They were "enraged" about the 2020 election and its results but not driven by "white rage."

By not centering the role of race in the events of Jan. 6, other realities are obscured as well. Trump's attempted coup and the ongoing attacks on American democracy are a function of toxic white masculinity, militant "Christianity," collective narcissism and other pathologies, including a profound societal impulse towards violence, self-destruction and death.

Many journalists may object to this criticism by responding that race and racism are not their "beat," and they lack expertise in that area. My response would be that they are neglecting one of the most important aspects of American society, and therefore failing to understand crucial context for the current political crisis.

To those who say they don't want to "make a mistake" when writing about race and racism, I would respond: Learn and study. Talk to experts, ask questions and educate yourself. Treat those topics as you would any other matter of critical societal importance. 

If the answer is, "I chose to not write that story," I would say you made a choice to ignore a central element of the Age of Trump, and America's actual or potential descent into fascism and racial authoritarianism. If the answer is more that the role of race on Jan. 6 "did not occur to me." The luxury not to "see" or understand racism and white supremacy is itself an example of white privilege and how it works on day-to-day manner. I do not question your good intentions — but those have little, if anything, to do with racist or white supremacist outcomes.

If the answer is to respond that it's "obvious" that the Trump attack force was white and it serves no purpose to mention said fact, I would explain how that is still a form of racial erasure which is doing the work of white supremacy. Assuming that these things are "obvious" helps to make invisible the myriad ways that whiteness and white power structure American society.

The power of racial colorblindness as a tool of white supremacy is easily understood: If the Jan. 6 attackers had been black or brown or Muslim, there would have been no such racial erasure. They would have been described in racial terms by the media, and in public discourse more generally, likely almost every single time the event was mentioned.

My concerns about racial erasure and the events of Jan. 6 are directed primarily toward the mainstream news media and its "reasonable" liberal or moderate voices. Right-wing media is a propaganda machine that serves the interests of white supremacy, and has no legitimacy or credibility in this discussion. But if mainstream "centrist" and liberal voices in the media are to play any kind of effective role as defenders of democracy in this moment of crisis, they must remove the blinders of whiteness.

At its core, American neofascism is a white supremacist project. To blind yourself to that fact is to limit your ability to understand it — and to grasp the magnitude of the existential danger now facing American society. That is the road to defeat, and the literal end of America's experiment in multiracial democracy. Mainstream media can do better — and it absolutely must.

Read more on the resurgence of white supremacy in America:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Capitol Riot Commentary Fascism Jan. 6 Media Racism White Supremacy