The Real Face of White Supremacy

When many people think about what white supremacy looks like, they often picture a white person outfitted in swastikas, shouting racist, xenophobic, or anti-Semitic slurs. Such an image isn’t at all incorrect, but it’s actually a rather limited and narrow depiction of what constitutes white supremacy. Today’s riot by Trump supporters on the Capitol, on the other hand, manifestly provides a window into understanding what white supremacy truly is and how it works, not simply because the mob itself was white, but more importantly because of how the actions of these individuals were handled by law enforcement.

I, like many people, look in horror at the images that have emerged out of this failed coup. I am struck by the realization that if these rioters had been Black or Brown, the carefree entitled behavior that these rioters project as they meander through the Capitol, breaking into Senators’ offices and vandalizing one of America’s most sacred spaces, would not have been tolerated so easily by police or other law enforcement. In a society when Black men and women are shot multiple times for no apparent reason whatsoever or choked at “routine” traffic stops, the fact that a mob of white people can take over the Capitol building so easily and for the length of time that they did, and only have one body as collateral damage is telling.

White America is sadly inured to the images of Black bodies in the news, but had law enforcement exerted even a modicum of the force with which they have imposed on people of color for infractions far less severe and in many cases, completely imagined, the Capitol would have been littered with bodies, a scene that white America would simply have never stood for it.

The white supremacy on display in full force here is not just the fact that these Trump supporters are white and “fear” a country in which “socialist” Democrats, Jews, queer people, and nonwhites will take away their precious freedoms (like owning semiautomatic rifles). Rather, it’s the simple ways in which these individuals were both treated by law enforcement and referred to by Trump and others on the Right that reveal how white supremacy is so embedded in our country. When protests (and yes, some rioting) broke out in May and June 2020 over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, Trump and others were quick to call such individuals “thugs.” When white pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol today, they were not “domestic terrorists,” but to use Ivanka Trump’s term, “American patriots.” These individuals were hardly mild-mannered “protestors.” They were an angry mob outfitted with guns and other deadly tools, ready to lynch others if given the chance.

In America, we typically only talk or think about race when the people in the situation at hand are people of color. But in doing this, we both overlook and normalize whiteness. White supremacy isn’t simply the act of white people using racial slurs or committing acts of physical violence against people of color. It’s a system of rewards which gives white people special benefits and treatment, and therefore access to property, opportunities, jobs, and in today’s case, protection, that is favorably prejudicial in comparison to the treatment that non-whites receive.

For anyone who looks at what transpired today and says that what these people were doing was no more than “protesting,” or if they do concede that it was rioting, but that Black people (and others) rioted in the late spring and early summer of 2020, keep this in mind. The protests that drove millions of people to the streets in the U.S. and around the world in 2020 were about trying to stop the senseless deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement officers. Murders that have been going on for centuries if you look at the history of race relations in the U.S. What today’s riot was, was the behavior of a bunch of people whose political candidate lost an election and therefore feared the end of of their (white) way of life. People who were essentially “sore losers” and who refused to accept the facts of an election. These are two very different scenarios and cannot be compared at all. Today’s insurrection is a scary look at what aggrieved white people will do to hold on to whatever modicum of power and sense of entitlement they think they are owed, and that is white supremacy and we, no matter what race we are, should be very scared about that.

Warren Hoffman is the author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical and The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture.

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