One way to decisively convey that treasonous white-supremacist insurrectionists are unwelcome in the US Capitol might be to remove all the statues that venerate treasonous white-supremacist insurrectionists from the US Capitol.
For nearly a century, the building has been home to more than 10 bronze and marble sculptures and busts honoring leaders of the Confederacy, a nation founded by traitorous white secessionists so committed to white power and black enslavement that they launched a war that cost 600,000 lives. The Capitol’s National Statuary Hall features a standing Confederate President Jefferson Davis, staring into the white-supremacist future he surely envisioned when he betrayed the Union; a nearby depiction of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens sits atop a pedestal erroneously etched with the word “Patriot” and conspicuously missing his infamous 1861 declaration that the Confederacy’s cornerstone was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” These figures are propaganda to promote the “Lost Cause,” a lie-filled depiction of history that attempts to rebrand dishonorable Confederate losers as war heroes—a myth so powerful in this white-supremacist country that in 2021 it’s still being pushed by the government Confederates sought to overthrow.
If we are not vigilant, the treasonous white-supremacist insurrectionists who tried to overtake the government this time around will end up getting the same whitewashed treatment.
It’s already started happening, in fact. New Lost Cause mythmaking began even as the Capitol insurgency was still taking place, with pundits and politicians insisting, “This is not who we are.” That tired line might be less easily debunked if the violent white backlash of today weren’t so symmetrical to the violent white backlash of Reconstruction. The post–Civil War emancipation and political enfranchisement of black folks, and the biracial Reconstruction government that resulted, so threatened white racial authority that white Southerners harassed, beat, and killed black folks in retaliation, lynching at least 6,400 African Americans between 1865 and 1950. President Andrew Johnson, a Southerner and Confederate apologist, explicitly voiced white fears over black power—or, more precisely, retribution—in his 1867 State of the Union speech, declaring that black suffrage would “create such a tyranny as this continent has never yet witnessed.” After just 12 years, the federal government abandoned Reconstruction, and with it, the chance for racial equality and true democracy. No sooner were federal troops withdrawn than white Southerners reasserted absolute white dominance through Jim Crow laws that effectively barred black folks from voting or holding office.
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Roughly 130 years later, despite racism’s steadfast endurance, Barack Obama’s election enraged white Americans who saw the first black president as evidence of the diminishing currency value of whiteness. The Tea Party quickly arose, a white racial grievance spasm with a half-assed disguise as a tax revolt. Reactionary formation of armed militia groups such as the Oath Keepers, like the Ku Klux Klan and Red Shirts during Reconstruction, reaffirmed that white American insecurity over racial status loss runs so deep, even black political participation sparks white revolt. Convinced his presidency was a step toward white enslavement—which they imagined as the most unnatural and unjust kind of slavery—white conservatives labeled Obama’s every centrist move “tyranny.” In truth, that was less a reaction to real government overreach than an expression of their belief that no law resulting from black power held any authority over whiteness. On the strength of his racism and birtherism, they sent liar and con man Donald Trump to the White House, charging him primarily with restoring white power and erasing any sign that blackness had been there.
The new Lost Cause, like the Lost Cause of yesteryear, uses lies to camouflage the desperate and pathetic effort to preserve white supremacy as a valorous fight for a noble end. Hence the patently ridiculous contention that the election was stolen and democracy imperiled, a likely story downplaying white supremacists’ belief that any presidential win delivered by black voters is inherently counterfeit. The same right-wing political and media elites who helped fire up the insurrectionists—Rep. Matt Gaetz, Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani, and Tucker Carlson among them—have tried to shift blame for the white mob’s actions to Black Lives Matter and antifa, as if footage of the Capitol insurgency doesn’t capture thousands of insurrectionists waving Trump flags and sporting MAGA gear. Right-wing echo chambers claim this summer’s anti-racist protests were more violent and bloody than the Capitol siege, but it’s hard to to recall an instance when BLM attacked multiple cops, beat an officer to death, called for the murder of Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, placed pipe bombs at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee headquarters, armed themselves with Molotov cocktails, Tasers, crossbows, and automatic rifles and desecrated the Capitol halls with excrement and puddles of urine. There has never been an antifa rally that culminated in protesters’ attempting a coup d’état. Yet these MAGA frauds still have the audacity to call themselves “heroic” and “patriots,” so sure are they that whiteness confers on their lawlessness both legitimacy and respectability.
And you know what? They’re not even wrong. Turns out this country’s complicity in treasonous Confederates’ effort to paint themselves as good-guy underdogs continues to have consequences. So do the endless bunk excuses—from “economic anxiety” to hurt white feelings—made to account for every horror Donald Trump voters could think to bring upon this country, especially the folks they blamed for their imagined power loss. Reconstruction failed because the federal government and white Americans across the country chose “unity”—of the same lopsided variety being offered by Republicans in this moment—with white terrorists who would quite rather kill or be killed than endure the racial oppression they would ensure black folks experience. The accommodationist stance of America toward unrestrained white rage is tantamount to a national policy of capitulation to white violence.
Yes, this is who we are. It’s who we’ve always been. When we finally decide we want to be better, we’ll make sure the latest version of the Lost Cause is not allowed to overwrite history. It means, to get even more specific, contesting every attempt to make Ashli Babbitt, a white terrorist killed during the Capitol uprising, into a martyr. (White supremacists have already tried to elevate Babbitt by co-opting #SayHerName, a hashtag to recognize black women killed by the state such as Breonna Taylor, because these people will even steal victimhood.) Reject every effort toward the post-presidential beatification of Donald Trump in the years to come. Call out the lie that his base was poor, ignorant innocents who knew not what they did. And starting now, avoid any fantasy that Biden’s inauguration has vanquished white terror, because even when they aren’t making news, they’re somewhere recruiting and reloading.
Give significant space to the fact that the police, who have always actively and passively abetted the abuse and murder of black folks, effectively stood down as white terrorists lay siege to the Capitol. Recall that the insurrectionists, well familiar with how white violence is allowed without repercussions, posted images of themselves mid-siege on social media, the glee of white impunity recalling the postcards of jubilant white crowds at lynchings. Take note of the fact that while US intelligence agencies have known since at least 2015 that white domestic terrorists are the greatest threat to this country, they have wasted precious time and resources surveilling nonexistent “Black Identity Extremists” while the far right metastasized.
Don’t leave out that a significant number of GOP voters believed in the lunacy of QAnon. Make sure it’s understood that white entitlement—the only sentiment that could drive this kind of utter madness and absence of reason—was definitional to the Republican Party platform. Contextualize the presidential win of birther Donald Trump as a manifestation of white anger and indignity over being asked to share even the tiniest bit of power. Never let the 147 GOP members of Congress who voted for white supremacy over democracy try to alter the record to indicate that they did it for any other reason.
And critically, stop coddling white supremacists and succumbing to the white backlash. On the heels of black voters’ overcoming the GOP’s racist voter suppression tactics to deliver Democratic victories in Georgia and elsewhere, there will be lots more pushback from those trying to keep America a white ethnostate. We already know. Prioritize voting rights for Black and Indigenous folks, because these racists are brainstorming even more sinister plans to make sure we never see a repeat of what just happened. Quit spending so much time appealing to mythical white swing voters who ditched the Democratic Party three generations ago, and stop treating their votes as somehow inherently more valuable. No more proactively shrinking from progress to avoid inflaming them. Just do democracy and keep it moving.
Lastly, convey why the very notion of historical accuracy—and the removal of Confederate monuments and other icons that corrupts history with junk misinformation—is so important. The presence of Confederate traitors in the seat of America’s government is a celebration of, and an invitation to, white insurrection and violence. There has to be a collective repudiation of the very idea of an American historical memory that omits ugly truths to instead create a fable of white lies and white American redemption. It’s a lesson that should’ve been obvious long ago. It seems unwise to think that even now it’s been properly learned.
Editor’s Note: When published, this article erroneously referred to Rep. Matt Gaetz as a senator. The mistake has been corrected.