What happened at the Capitol shows white privilege in plain view

Chidozie Obasi
·5-min read
Photo credit: ALEX EDELMAN
Photo credit: ALEX EDELMAN

From Harper's BAZAAR

When opportunity to rectify a failure comes along, we do not always need empirical evidence to tell us that we need to make a correction. Sometimes we can realise errors through theory or probability. And yet in the case of racism, if previous data and observations were not already enough to prove its existence, yesterday’s Capitol siege provides us with a clear comparative example of the disparity in which white and Black people are treated in similar scenarios. I use the word ‘similar’ loosely, but here we saw white privilege in searingly clear view.

On 6 January, 2021 angry supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Washington DC Capitol Hill in full-raid mode, thwarting Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory by attacking the building and causing disruptions. Trump declared a muted call for peace after the protests were well in motion but did not urge his mostly maskless supporters to disperse. In a thronged scene, protesters fought past police forces and breached the house, waving American flags as they marched through the hallways like demented Vikings. A woman who was shot inside the Capitol during the marches later died. Biden’s session was swiftly dismissed and lawmakers—including the building’s personnel—were rushed to safety.

Photo credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT
Photo credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT

The reaction in America has been, as in the rest of the world, condemnatory among the Black community. The common sentiment felt throughout the scenes of “domestic terrorism” was one of deep deflation. When the Black Lives Matter protests took place in June 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, Black protesters faced tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets. Many sustained serious injuries. To name just a few cases, as reported on by Time, 21-year-old Dounya Zayer had a seizure after she was pushed to the kerb by police, smacking her head on the floor. She is still recovering from concussion and a back injury caused by her fall. Donavan La Bella, 26, was left with a fractured skull and the bones around his left eye socket were broken, after police shot at him with an impact ammunition. Shantania Love, 30, was blinded by an officer who fired projectiles into a crowd. Yesterday’s protesters were met with little to no resistance from the police. In fact, in the midst of the turmoil, some protesters took selfies with the police. The hypocrisy of law enforcement was dazzling.

Research proves that over the last decade, Black people were up to six times more likely to be stopped by police than white people, showing a 38 percent stop-and-search increment rate between 2018 and 2019. Black people are 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterpart. This suggests a far higher rate of arrest for Black people than white people, highlighting a disproportionate benchmark of justice. It’s worth remembering this statistic, given how hostile the circumstances were in the wake of the BLM movement. Although we have moved forward since last year’s anti-racism protests, the inertia, fatigue and frustration of the Black community remains the same.

The differing treatment of the police, which we saw so plainly at the Capitol, says a lot about white supremacy. It exemplifies how much racial disparity is engrained in the nation’s system and how white privilege sits at the heart of racial injustice. In times of political strife and social angst, to see the scary reality of racial inequality taken to extreme proportions, look to the US: if Black people were the ones climbing up walls and causing havoc, the consequences would have been far more devastating. More guns would have been fired and the death toll would have been much higher, all at the hands of white power. To put it simply: if you are white and angry you get away with untold crimes, but if you are Black and show a sentiment of anxiety, if you protest for basic human rights, you are demonised.

“It's not white privilege, it's just white power concentrated in the annals of all our institutions,” says activist Ericka Hart. “What you're seeing is hardly a coup; this is white nationalism in a white imperialist country built on the enslavement and genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples. Even the terms used to describe them aren't consummate to their actions such as ‘troublemakers,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘right wing authoritarians,’ anything except white or racist. But if this is a coup and sedition is a punishable offence, why the lack of arrests?”

Black organisers in America were arrested and charged for protesting and continue to be shrivelled after having their pictures taken at protests against the extrajudicial killings of Black people by police last summer. “A single Black child is met more aggressively by law enforcement than over a 1,000 white people walking around the Capitol building, some of them armed,” Hart continues.

Activist and LGBTQ+ commentator Barrett Pall agrees. “Protestors who stood with the BLM movement were at every stage met with harsh and severe force,” he says, highlighting that most of the protests were peaceful. “We were named rioters and looters and depicted by President Trump as anarchists looking to cause mayhem. We were and are people protesting for equal human rights. We came together peacefully to protest the double standard that exists for white supremacist in comparison to BIPOC Americans. Tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, tanks, and other means of excessive force were waiting for us at the beginning of every organised peaceful protest, yet when Trump supporters or white supremacist terrorists come together to riot, they are met with kindness, patience, and almost no resistance.”

Photo credit: Win McNamee
Photo credit: Win McNamee

What happened at the Capitol building is an embarrassment; it is clear proof of the behavioural and social preferences bestowed on the white community. The illusion of US democracy has been shattered, showcasing the gross injustices exacted upon its constituents whose lives, like that of their ancestors, are routinely taken. It’s time attention is paid and tangible change is made.

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