Right after the presidential election, many of us were told that we needed to show empathy to the MAGA crowd and try to come together with the over 70 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. Which is to say, voted to uphold white supremacy by supporting a maniac who has spewed hate everyday for the last four years. Most recently he incited the violent, racist mob that law enforcement just allowed to walk through the door of the Capitol to threaten our democracy for hours, in stark contrast to the brutal treatment Black Lives Matter protestors have been subject to by police.
These contradictions aren’t new to me, though. I didn’t just start protesting when it became popular last summer. I’ve been in the streets rallying and fighting since college — from my first Black consciousness class through my master’s degree at Howard University, to the streets of Baltimore during the uprising for Freddie Gray, and most recently in the aftermath of the numerous killings of Black people by police.
In college, I joined the Black Student Union because I wanted to be more than just a social security number at the predominantly white institution I attended at the time. In my freshman year, Nazis planned to march on our campus, claiming it was within their First Amendment rights and threatening the administration if they did not allow the march to go on as planned. I looked for ways the BSU could try to shut them down. But some members of our organization wanted to strategize on how we could try to work with them to convince them not to march, and maybe — just maybe — even convince them of our humanity. They tried repeatedly to set up a meeting with the organizers of the Nazi march, but none responded. But some institutional leaders and faculty members praised their attempts anyway, saying the act of reaching out was a noble attempt.
As expected, Nazis marched as planned, doing what Nazis do. They showed up with their shaved heads, tattered boots, shouting slogans about white power and superiority. Watching the mob that stormed the Capitol, I was reminded of how those Nazis moved through my school, threatening Black students and bullying their way through campus as if they owned it. Some of the marchers carried Confederate flags or wore them. Many students of color were frightened and headed for safety. A few gathered in friends’ dorms or apartments. I remember watching my peers crying. Some even called home so their loved ones would know what was happening in case something violent happened.
As Black Student Union members, we were furious, and we decided to stage a sit-in on campus in protest. We gathered other students with us, proud to stand up to hatred in ways within our power. After days of planning, it was finally time. I remember feeling a little scared, a little anxious, and very angry that we even needed to do this. But I grabbed my hoodie from my dorm and went to the student union, prepared to sit in protest for however long we needed to get our message across. We had been sitting in for just about an hour before members of the schools administration showed up and threatened to expel us if we didn’t disperse. The same school leaders who praised my peers’ attempts to reach out to the Nazis were prepared to take away our chance at higher education if we didn’t silence ourselves.
Black people were being punished for using our First Amendment rights to speak up for justice while Nazis were allowed to roam freely about campus screaming hate. Once again, we were reminded that those in power expect us to work, always, with the other side. If my college had listened to its Black students and tried to understand what it felt like for us to live in fear the day the Nazis marched on our campus, maybe they would have kicked them out instead of threatening to snatch our futures away from us if we didn’t obey. The Black students at my school who thought for even a second that they could convince the Nazis to leave campus simply by having a decent conversation with people “on the other side” learned a valuable lesson about who cares to see our humanity and who has the power to ignore it. That day, I saw the system working exactly as designed — to marginalize us and uplift white supremacy.
This is a lesson Black people learn early, which is why so many of us are not shocked by recent events. People “on the other side” of racial justice don’t care about our humanity or dignity. At best, they don’t care about racism, but many also react as if threatened by our very existence. And you don’t have to be an extreme example — a Nazi, or even Donald Trump — to be part of the problem of white supremacy in our country. Staying silent and protecting your ignorance is enough.
In the aftermath of the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol, the world watched while President-elect Joe Biden urged the nation to unify in this moment, drawing on his now-familiar refrain: “There has never been anything we can’t do, when we do it together.” But how can we do this together if we are the only ones ever expected to extend respect and dignity to “the other side”?
President-elect Biden also said, “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America.” But they do. After all that chaos, I hope people remember the images of Black people cleaning up. Racism won’t simply go away with Trump out of office. We don’t need empty New Years’ resolutions from white people that they will do better. A step toward progress would be white people actually confronting their own biases and racism, working to dismantle those beliefs and to understand why whiteness is a weapon that needs to be banned.
But America is still a nation of performative kumbaya. People I’m supposed to show empathy to rallied in D.C. a few weeks earlier with signs that read “Coming for Blacks and Indians, welcome to the New World Order.” That’s a threat to our lives, and political leaders from both parties expect us to work with that? I’m not interested in building a bridge to nowhere.
My college’s response to a Nazi march taught me about the “true America” The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Salon.