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Opinion | The Capitol Attack and the Myth of American Innocence

The days leading up to the mob invasion of the Capitol presented several echoes of the intricately planned coup d’état carried out against the city government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. White supremacists overthrew a government that had been elected through an alliance that included African-Americans and white progressives.

As Mr. Hofstadter and Michael Wallace report in “American Violence: A Documentary History,” military units poured into Wilmington from other places to assist the new regime: “African continued to cringe before Caucasian as the troops paraded the streets, as the guns barked and the bayonets flared, for a new municipal administration of the ‘White Supremacy’ persuasion.”

Untold numbers of Black citizens were killed, and well-known Wilmingtonians were banished from the city under pain of death. As was the case at the Capitol on Wednesday, the Wilmington mob was especially keen to silence journalists who had resisted the rising tide of racism. To that end, the marauders burned the Black-owned Daily Record, whose editor, Alexander Manly, fled the city.

White supremacists eventually took control of the state, bringing down the curtain on Black political participation. Given this history, it is in no way a coincidence that North Carolina remains a battleground where African-Americans continue to struggle against the effects of gerrymandering and other forms of suppression.

Large and small, these violent assaults on Black self-determination continued into the 20th century. While sometimes expressly intended to destroy Black electoral power, they were just as often deployed to crush Black economic independence by destroying homes and, particularly, businesses that competed with white-owned ones in the marketplace.

Perhaps the most pointed example of such an assault was the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in Oklahoma. A white mob unleashed partly by the Tulsa police murdered at will while incinerating 35 square blocks of the Black enclave of Greenwood, reducing to ashes a muscular business strip known as the Negro Wall Street.

As the historian Jelani Cobb noted in The New Yorker two months before the election, America’s record of willfully ignoring the violent suppression of Black voting rights is much more extensive than its record of protecting Black voters. While the public tends to view instances of election violence “as a static record of the past,” he wrote, “historians tend to look at them the way that meteorologists look at hurricanes: as a predictable outcome when a number of recognizable variables align in familiar ways.” As Mr. Cobb said last fall — when political violence was clearly trending upward — the metaphorical hurricane was close at hand indeed.

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