Racism’s prominent role in January 6 U.S. Capitol attack

Nicole Austin-Hillery is the Executive Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. Victoria Strang is the Policy Advocate with Faith Communities at Human Right Watch.

There is power in truth, and the truth about the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol is this: racism and a fear of growing diversity in the United States was at the heart of the violence. While then-President Donald Trump encouraged demonstrators to retake the nation under the guise of halting certification of the 2020 election results, racism was in the roots of, and remains embedded in, this movement. 

Rioters blatantly and proudly hurled racial slurs against Capitol Police officers.  Many waved the Confederate battle flag, long a symbol for southern states that supported slavery and those promoting post-Civil War racist policies.  Gallows and nooses that recalled the lynchings of Black people appeared on and around the Capitol grounds – so many symbols of racial hatred that the Washington Post compiled a list of many that were witnessed that day. Taken together, they lead to one overarching conclusion: that the January 6 attacks had much to do with race in America.

The problem is that many Americans, even those outraged by the Capitol assault, have not recognized this. But it cannot be ignored that a substantial number of white Americans fear becoming a minority.

Research shows that many white evangelicals, for example, do not want to live in a religiously diverse country, identifying as Christian nationalists. A September  survey  by the Public Religion Research Institute  found that roughly one-third of whites surveyed  believe that God granted America a special role in human history and that patriotic violence may be necessary to save the nation. These  striking statistics  should be confronted as part of any efforts to understand why January 6 happened and how to prevent similar violence in the future.

National leaders should also do more to help change the lives of Black people and other groups who have historically been oppressed by racism. Despite the rhetoric from the administration of President Joe Biden and some members of Congress, little has been done legislatively or through executive power to improve economic conditions, stem voter suppression, or address a growing push to study the issue of reparations and the history of slavery in the US.

Politics and fear often stop leaders from confronting the disturbing truth about the divisions in the nation. But if US leaders are truly committed to protecting democracy, they need to be bold and swift to address systemic racism and enforce the right to equality that was so blatantly attacked on January 6.

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