Social Studies Opinion

The U.S. Capitol Insurrection Was a Case Study in White Privilege. Teach It That Way

Our students deserve the truth about racialized double standards
By Shaun R. Harper — January 05, 2022 4 min read
U.S. Capitol Police try to hold back protesters outside the east doors of the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.
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Thousands of Americans gathered in our nation’s capital one year ago for a rally to support former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. On this first anniversary of the Capitol rally that turned into an insurrection, it is important to remember and acknowledge the role race played. Here is the first: The overwhelming majority of insurrectionists were white, and most were white men.

I sat in shock last January as I watched televised news coverage of hundreds of people (if not more) storming and overtaking the Capitol. Boldly, they flooded one of the highest-security buildings in Washington. It baffled me that some were able to make it onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and remain there long enough to be photographed. How one man somehow made his way into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, sat in her chair, and left her a handwritten note was all so mystifying to me.

And then, there were the rioters dangling off the side of the building. “How could this be happening?” I remember repeatedly asking myself. I also wondered why so little was being done to stop the rioters and why they were so visibly unafraid of the consequences of their actions. I pondered one additional question: What would have happened had these been Black people? Many other Black Americans, including educators, posed this same question in social-media posts, op-eds, and media interviews.

We all reached the same conclusion: There would have been a massacre. Outraged Black demonstrators attempting to come within steps of the Capitol while a joint session of Congress was being held to certify the results of a national election would have been swiftly killed. Many more armed police officers would have been there, and Trump likely would have called the National Guard again as he did when citizens gathered peacefully outside the White House in June 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd. Snipers would have gunned down every Black protester scaling the Capitol. One Jan. 6 insurrectionist was shot and killed; surely, there would have been hundreds, perhaps thousands more had they been Black.

News sources reported at the end of December and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland confirmed on Wednesday that more than 700 people have been arrested for their participation in the Capitol insurrection; and only a couple dozen have been sentenced to jail. There undoubtedly would have been a significantly higher number of arrests by now had the rioters been Black. In fact, the threat posed to members of Congress by a large mob of angry Black Americans would have been used to justify deadly use of force. Their killers would have been dubbed heroes. Students deserve to know these truths about racialized double standards in the U.S. legal system, despite ongoing legislative efforts to suppress teaching about racism in our nation’s K-12 schools.

The Capitol insurrection is a useful case study to teach all K-12 and higher education students about the multifarious nature of white privilege. People of color cannot violently take over federal buildings, march through them with guns, and destroy property without consequence. A mob of white protesters violently occupying the Capitol is one horrifying exposure of America’s racialized double standard, in this instance as it pertains to law enforcement.

In the aftermath of the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, millions of demonstrators flooded America’s streets to march for Black lives. A heavy police presence often awaited them. Given the ways in which conversations about race and racism are evaded in America’s schools, I would be surprised if many teachers have afforded students opportunities to juxtapose photos and videos from Jan. 6, 2021, with images from mostly peaceful protests that occurred throughout June 2020. Denying young Americans the chance to analyze and critique racialized situations almost guarantees they will grow up lacking the skills to interpret and ultimately address pervasive racial problems that confront our democracy. We educators remain complicit in the cyclical manufacturing of racism in our nation when we send our students into adulthood with insufficient understanding of America’s historical and contemporary racial realities.

See Also

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar/AP
Social Studies Opinion My Students Still Have Questions About the Capitol Riot. They Deserve Honest Answers
Chris Dier, January 5, 2022
4 min read

Hundreds of news stories and op-eds have been published about the racialized aspects of the Capitol insurrection. Furthermore, dozens of clips of Black Americans and others (including some white persons) talking about this are available on YouTube. Educators should use these digital resources to stimulate productive discussions in their classrooms. Without expecting them to speak on behalf of all Black people, first make space to hear Black students’ reactions to racial commentary about the insurrection. Ask how it made them feel. Then, ask students across all racial groups in the class why they think so many outraged white Americans were able to threaten members of Congress, storm into one of the nation’s most heavily secured facilities, destroy things, and break laws without immediate and more lethal consequence. Why were so many of the insurrectionists white? Why were some of them carrying Confederate flags?

Law-enforcement officials knew that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were coming to Washington for the “Save America” rally last January. It was widely known that they were angry about ridiculous, unfounded claims of election fraud. Teachers and professors should ask students to explain why more was not done in anticipation of chaos and violence and what preparatory actions would have been taken had there been advance notice that thousands of angry Black people were showing up to a protest. Students should be invited to name other manifestations of white privilege, identify ways to raise public consciousness about it, and ultimately learn how to eradicate racialized double standards in our democracy.

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