Disclaimer: This is an opinion article. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or position of the faculty the author is associated with, or of The Open University.
On the morning of Wednesday 6 January 2021, I woke up to the news that the state of Georgia had elected the Reverend Dr Raphael Warnock to one of the state’s two Senate seats, in a keenly anticipated run-off election after the November ballot failed to produce winners in either of Georgia’s senate races. Warnock’s victory was unprecedented: when he is sworn in, not only will he be the first Black Senator in Georgia’s history, he will also be the first Black Senator representing the Democratic Party in any former Confederate state. He joins Tim Scott (R-NC) as the only two Black men elected to the Senate in the post-Reconstruction South. Joining Cory Booker (D-NJ), they are three Black senators out of a total 100. It’s hard to overstate the significance of Warnock’s election. It’s hard to overstate the historic whiteness of the Senate.
But by that Wednesday evening, Warnock’s momentous victory in Georgia was overshadowed by the insurgent attack on the Capitol building by supporters of Donald Trump, the most openly racist President since Woodrow Wilson, who has teetered on the brink of sedition since he lost to Joe Biden in the November election. One can’t help wonder whether Warnock’s victory pushed his mostly white, conspiracy theory loving, confederate flag bearing base over the edge.
In the aftermath of the riots, president elect Joe Biden delivered remarks from Wilmington to reassure Americans that this was an aberration. “America is so much better than what we’ve seen today”, he said.
Is it though?
One of the other notable things about Raphael Warnock is that he preaches at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King, Jr began his ministry. Biden’s inauguration is scheduled for two days after the federal holiday named after King. When King and his colleagues in the Civil Rights movement marched peacefully against racism, they did not meet with police forces who moved barriers for them. They did not take selfies with local policemen. They were arrested en masse.
On 2 May 1963, in Birmingham Alabama, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor and his police forces jailed 1,200 men, women and children who took part in peaceful protest. Last August, DC police had no difficulty arresting 41 participants in a Black Lives Matter protest march. You might come to the conclusion that the police know perfectly well how to arrest peaceful Black and Brown people in the street, but seem at a loss when it comes to arresting white far-right insurrectionists attacking the seat of government. In the 24 hours following the riots, DC and Capitol Police arrested just 14 people out of the hundreds who stormed the Capital building. Many more were arrested overnight for breach of curfew; in a city that is majority Black, one can only wonder who they were, and marvel at the injustice that the lives of ordinary DC citizens were disrupted by curfew because of the actions of mostly white, radicalised Trump supporters intent on anti-government activity. The double standard is striking.
Donald Trump deliberately aligned himself with a vision of America that privileges white experience over all others.The mythology that these white racist radicals are somehow ‘un-American’ is one of the most dangerous stories of the post-Reconstruction era. White racism upended any potential for real healing after the Civil War. White racism created the need for the very Compromise of 1877 that Ted Cruz used as a pretext for opposing certification of the electoral college results, before senators had to leave the chamber because of the incursion. Donald Trump has consistently used racist dog whistles to foment divisions that allowed him to win the presidency. In using the campaign phrase ‘America First’ and styling himself on Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump has deliberately aligned himself with a vision of America that privileges white experience over all others. The rioters in DC thought nothing of filming themselves illegally entering and damaging the Capitol building, exposing their identities and giving interviews to the mainstream press. Why? It literally did not occur to them that the police would turn on them. And they were right, for the most part.
On 18 January, many Americans will mark the federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. They will remember King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and reassure themselves that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But let’s not forget that in Mississippi and Alabama, the holiday commemorates Martin Luther King Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who fought to retain slavery. Because commemorating sedition is as American as apple pie. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election is just the sharp end of generations of voter suppression that were not eliminated by the 15th Amendment, nor by the Voting Rights Act. And the attacks on the Capitol are the natural end point of generations of Know-Nothings, Klansmen, Massive Resistance, Tea Partiers and politicians using race-baiting disguised as ‘law and order’ and vague notions of ‘socialism’ to deliberately sabotage normal political discourse.
As Abraham Lincoln warned, "a house divided cannot stand".When Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th President two days after MLK day, he may well give a speech articulating his own dream of harmony, a desire to shift away from Trump’s American carnage. But this crisis has been years, generations, in the making. Fuelled by systemic racism, economic inequality, an under-resourced public education system and the intentional sabotage of bipartisan politics (mostly by the Republican Party), the United States is dangerously divided. As Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858, “a house divided cannot stand”.
The election of Raphael Warnock will be interpreted as a beacon of hope, and maybe it is – the tireless work of Stacey Abrams and others in Georgia took almost a decade to get to this point. Kamala Harris will perhaps overtake Dick Cheney as the most powerful Vice President in history. But there’s no getting away from the reality that America is not better. It has never come to terms with its past. It is unlikely that the incoming Congress and President will be able to mend these divisions, within a divisive climate encouraged by mainstream and social medias. The only salve will be a wholesale change of political culture.