Tanzina: Yesterday, House Democrats formally introduced an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump for inciting the violent mob that stormed the Capitol last Wednesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they'd move forward with an impeachment vote unless Vice President Mike Pence invoked the 25th amendment to remove Donald Trump from office. While our elected officials try to determine the future of the current president, law enforcement officials are beginning to identify and charge many of the insurrectionists to storm the Capitol last week. So far, the list includes at least one politician, former military personnel, civil servants, and other working professionals. Two Capitol Police officers have also been suspended, and at least 10 others are under investigation for their role in aiding the insurrectionists.
White mob violence in the United States is not new, especially when it comes on the heels of racial progress. It has deep roots that cut across class and education background from poor whites aggrieved over black progress to elite whites afraid of losing their power. Many people from journalists on cable news to members of both political parties and even President-Elect, Joe Biden, have repeatedly described the incident as "unprecedented," saying these events do not reflect who we are. I'm Tanzina Vega and today on The Takeaway, we're going to confront the uncomfortable truths about white violence in the United States and talk about who we really are as a country. Joining me now is Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. Kate, welcome to the show.
Kate: Thanks so much.
Tanzina: Daina Ramey Berry is the Chair of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Daina, welcome.
Daina: Thank you.
Tanzina: Last Wednesday, after the Capitol insurrection, I tweeted that this was, "the logical culmination of events." As historians would you agree? Daina, let's start with you.
Daina: Well, logically, yes, in a way that we were warned that this was going to happen and this has happened before. Historically, we have elections where people are not satisfied, and we have a precedence of this happening in the past. It's happened in the war of 1812 when the British stormed Washington and destroyed parts of the Library of Congress, as well as some of the government and public buildings. We knew that this was going to happen, it was all over social media, and we witnessed it on television, knowing it was going to happen a few days before.
Kate: I think when thinking about historical comparisons, one of the things that strikes me is that a fair amount of the political violence that's happened in this country in the past, especially in the 19th century, in the period after the Civil War, was similarly predicted, publicly discussed, whipped up by media outlets. Instead of maybe we sometimes envision political violence of the Reconstruction era as being spontaneous, or uprisings, riots, that kind of thing, but oftentimes, these were very premeditated. They were things that were organized in plain sight. People knew what was coming, and thinking back on what happened last Wednesday, I think there are a lot of parallels there.
Tanzina: Kate, let's talk about the makeup of the Capitol mob. It included a whole bunch of different types of folks. There were members of extremist groups, like the Proud Boys conspiracy theorists, people that follow QAnon, off duty police officers. Is that in line with who has been historically part of white mob violence?
Kate: I would say, again, going back to the Reconstruction period, what historians have found is that, first of all, there was a tremendous amount of white supremacist violence in that period, and that you did, in fact, see people from a variety of different kinds of class backgrounds involved in that violence. The leaders were often former Confederate Veterans, former military, people who knew how to use guns, were very familiar with military maneuvers. You had particularly young men who were from elite backgrounds, people who were the sons of planters, large landowners. You also had poor white people who participated in that violence, who were threatened by African Americans' rights. All of the people who participated were basically driven by a sense that they wanted to reduce African Americans to, if not slavery, which had been the status of most southern black people before the Civil War, at the very least to a very subordinate class, who did not have political power. That notion that there is diversity, that there are people coming from a variety of different kinds of perspectives, that has historical roots as well.
Tanzina: I want to go back to this idea about the economic anxiety that was driving-- and I say economic anxiety in quotes, that was driving a lot of Trump supporters. The media really appreciated that narrative. I've often said, it's not that white folks have not experienced economic anxiety. It's that there were other things that were propelling Trump supporters to the polls. One of the things besides economic anxiety, Daina, is also that Trump supporters are largely uneducated, definitely not elite, they're racist. But when we saw who was at the Capitol, there were professionals, there were law enforcement, there were military personnel. Why is there a tendency to attribute white violence to a certain segment of the population or a certain stereotype instead of really approaching it from the perspective of the fact that it's all-inclusive, that you can be elite and storm the Capitol?
Daina: Absolutely. Well, that is absolutely a stereotype. As Dr. Masur just said, so many of the violent uprisers that were participating in the 19th century, the makeup of that crowd is very similar today. Like you said, there were educators there, there were police officers there, there were politicians there. This is not necessarily a class issue, because I think some of the rioters that were participating last week, were also members of various classes. This is something that we've always seen. It's not something that's new. The fact that there were law enforcement officers in the crowd participating, and that's something that we saw in the past just as well. That is not a change. The group of people that we saw there last week have also protested and have also been supporters of Trump.
Tanzina: Daina, this is something that-- this word has been batted around a bit. I thought about this a couple of years ago, but often people describe this as a whitelash to racial progress. If you look at the election, for example of President Barack Obama, our first and only Black president, and you see President Donald Trump elected following that, are we experiencing a whitelash to racial progress right now, a white backlash, Daina?
Daina: I would say, yes. This is something that we've seen, again, historically. We saw this at Tulsa 100 years ago, when there was a Tulsa massacre that was really about Black success. We had a African American, occupy the White House as a president in Barack Obama, and I think that part of this is a backlash or whitelash from that. Whenever you see Black success, there's oftentimes mobs that come out to try to check that. I think that is some of what we're seeing today.
Tanzina: Kate, what about the idea that we see a lot-- and even President-Elect Joe Biden mentioned this, the idea that this isn't, "not who we are." I don't know. Given what we're all talking about today, it feels like white supremacist violence is in fact very core to who we "are" as a country.
Kate: I'd like to think that when somebody like Joe Biden says, "This is not who we are." What he means is, "This is not who I want us to be. This is not who we should be." Part of the point that I want to make and that I often make in teaching and places like that is, we have to confront who we have been collectively in the past. This might not be who we want to be as a country. We might wish that these aspects of our past and present were not with us, but, for example, to really understand what happened last Wednesday, and what's been happening with dating back to the election of Trump or Trump's rise in politics on the birther falsehood, the birther lie. We have to understand the uglier aspects of our past, including political violence, including an authoritarian, very anti-democratic strain in American politics, including white supremacy. In that sense, this is who we are, and we need to come to grips with it. We might not want to be this country that we are, but the whole story is what we need to grapple with.
Tanzina: Daina, why is it 2021 and we're still trying to grapple with this?
Daina: Well, one, because we have not really been honest about it in the way that we've presented our country. As historians, we write about these moments, we write about history in very honest ways. But when you look at the textbooks that K through 12 educators are using, they don't necessarily portray our history in this manner. I think there's been this grand narrative that's often been controlled by a lost-cause mythology where members of the Confederacy were involved in some of the early textbooks, particularly the state of Georgia, the history textbooks that they use in Georgia.
What you find is, there's a way in which we want to tell the story of who we are, and it often excludes
the parts of us that we're not proud of or that may make us look bad. I think we're in a moment now where we need to make some changes to that. Historians and scholars have been talking about this. We teach our classes at universities and students are often shocked to learn the history of the Civil War, to learn about African American oppression, and to learn about the long history of that. They're surprised and they feel betrayed by the textbooks that they grew up with. They feel betrayed by the education, and this is not a criticism of teachers. It's the way that we've portrayed our country. Historians have been trying to tell the truth for a long time.
Tanzina: Daina, you're talking about people who are lucky enough to go to college, to be able to afford to go to college. I know lots of people, myself included, had those moments in college where you said, "Wait a minute, I've never heard of this story before," or, "This book is opening my eyes to something completely different." Do you think that-- and I extend this question to you, Kate, do you think that education is part of the problem here as well or the lack thereof?
Kate: Yes, in the sense that, as Dr. Berry is saying, we could do better, and in many places, teachers are teaching incredibly creatively, they're going outside the textbook, there are now with the web, there's actually tremendous additional teaching resources available for teachers who want to move beyond the textbook. But in many places, that's not the case, or teachers just don't have the space to do that in the K-12 curriculum. This country has, for more than a decade, overwhelmingly emphasized STEM education, funded STEM education, and so, part of what I would really like to see is greater attention to the teaching of social studies, of civics, of humanities.
Part of what we're seeing now is the result of underfunding and lack of attention to these areas that are so important. When we think about, "Why is it that so many people are willing to believe that the election was not fairly constructed? Where are the issues with interpreting media with understanding truth? Why do people not seem to grasp the issues of conflict of interest and criminality at the highest levels of government that we have been seeing over the last four years that so many Americans seem willing to accept?" I think a lot of that, in some ways, can be attributed to disinvestment in the kinds of areas in education like civics and social studies and so forth. I do think that's part of the problem, but I think there are a variety of different problems. As an educator myself, I gravitate toward issues associated with education, but that's one in a constellation of really terrible and perplexing issues that our country is facing right now.
Tanzina: Daina, some of the people who stormed the Capitol called themselves-- and this is another word that's being used, and I'm curious to your thoughts. The word patriot. What does this tell us about how that word has been co-opted by this mob?
Daina: We think about who-- what they mean by patriot and why other groups of people are considered not patriotic. That was one of my questions that I had when I was watching this. I'm like, "As if other groups of people, there are even those that have been marginalized in this country, don't consider themselves American and don't consider themselves people who are doing their best to love our country and to be a part of our country." I think the idea of patriot is also harking back to a moment where there's a question of your loyalty to the United States going back to 1776. I think that's part of it, this notion of who was considered patriotic, and I think that there's some of this like, "We're taking our country back," if you looked at some of the footage of what people were saying.
Tanzina: Back from who? Back from who?
Tanzina: From what, Daina?
Daina: I think it's back from--
Tanzina: Brown people, Black people, women, who are we taking it back from?
Daina: I would love to know the answer to that, but I think that's partly what they're saying. They're taking it back from people who don't think like them. They're taking it back from people who don't look like them. Although there were members of multiple races, there were African Americans in that crowd last Wednesday. I think that taking it back means that they want to see our country moving in a certain way and the direction of inclusivity of having African Americans take leadership positions like Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color vice president and the first female vice president. I think some of that is a rejection of that. It's a rejection of the Obama administration. That's what I think they mean by, "Taking back our country."
Tanzina: Kate, I want to talk a little bit also about this idea of victimhood. I see this from a lot of the "Karens" who have been caught on videos claiming distress because Black or brown people are even within eyesight, frankly, in many of these videos or really just terrorizing folks of color. There's this sense that, again, going along with the "taking our country back, something's been taken away from us," where does this legacy of white victimhood under the Trump administration really come in? Is this an effective--? This seems to be the most effective recruiting cry right now.
Kate: Yes. Again, it's complicated. I think that, in the most straightforward sense, you have some subset of white Americans who do not want to share power with immigrants, with people of color, with Black Americans. They feel threatened by the idea that the United States is becoming increasingly multiracial, that there are channels of upward mobility for people of color in this country, and they just flat out don't want to see it, don't want to share power, don't want to share privilege. They feel as if when people of color are succeeding, that it takes something away from them, instead of imagining that there's room for a variety of different kinds of people to succeed and to have what they want in this country [crosstalk]--
Tanzina: Let's say, Kate, people of color are succeeding and white people aren't getting the-- Isn't that the nature of a capitalist society? Isn't that the nature of the democracy that we have set up, that these "patriots" are calling for, this meritocracy or is it that they're upset that the power structure has been shaken?
Kate: Absolutely, they are. It's not without reason that some people have called the form of capitalism that we have in this country racial capitalism because capitalism has, in the United States and arguably globally, always been intertwined with racial hierarchy, with visions of the supremacy of people of European origin, with the exploitation of labor of people of color, whether enslaved people in the United States or through colonial systems of power. The truth is that what they're advocating is not a pure meritocracy, it's not a "free market." It's an idea of a throwback to some vision of the 1950s, wherein which white people in the United States were securely on top politically and economically. That's just not the direction this country has been going for quite a while. They feel like they're on the losing end of the bargain in that sense.
Tanzina: The last question for you, Daina, is how has white supremacist violence been treated in the past in terms of accountability? We're looking at that now as law enforcement begins to scour the tapes to find out who was involved in this insurrection. I'm wondering, has there been accountability for white supremacist violence in the past? If so or if not, what does that tell us about what we can expect to see now in the Capitol?
Daina: In the past, there has not been as much accountability for white supremacy because many of the people that were involved were also law enforcement officers. They were judges, constables, people that were in part of the city government, federal government.
I think we're now seeing, though I have to say, we're seeing arrests, I think there's been, if I'm not mistaken, about 100 arrests. We are seeing more accountability. When I think back to some of the lynch mobs of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, there was a gentleman in Texas that was held in a bank vault, where a mob came and took him out, dragged him into the streets, and clearly, there had to be some complicity with law enforcement at that point for them, the mob, to get in and come and take somebody out. I think now we're seeing a change and I'm hoping that there's more accountability. We went from seeing people wearing KKK robes and covering themselves up to now people walking into the US Capitol without their face-covering in the middle of a pandemic. We have photographs, we have cameras, we have videos and people are slowly starting to be arrested. I'm happy to see that.
Tanzina: Daina Ramey Berry is the Chair of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin and author of A Black Women’s History of the United States. Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of the forthcoming book, Until Justice Be Done. Kate, Daina, thank you for joining us.
Daina: Thank you.
Kate: Thank you.
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