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ix months ago, a crowd protesting Donald Trump’s loss of the November 2020 US presidential election raged their way into the United States Capitol with the goal of stopping the certification of ballots that would make Joe Biden the 46th US president. After months of sowing doubt about the integrity of the election, following years of intensifying voter suppression efforts, and entrenched within the long US history of white supremacy labeled as democracy, on January 6, 2021, Trump infamously held a rally with his supporters repeating claims about the “stolen” election and encouraging efforts to prevent the certification of Biden’s election. The event was coordinated and funded by conservative groups, the White House, and the Trump campaign over the weeks following the November 3rd, 2020 election, bringing together highly trained and organized militias and white nationalist groups, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and Trump true-believers outfitted in MAGA attire. Focused on rolling back many of the hard-won 2020 election gains that voting and civil activists had long fought for in the face of extraordinary voter suppression efforts and the COIVD-19 pandemic, the protesters were motivated by the months-long campaign cast doubt on the validity of the vote.
As the world watched in real-time, the crowd descended on the Capitol, battling and battering law enforcement, breaking into congressional offices and chambers, and erecting a gallows on the Capitol lawn. While the presence of far-right groups and militias captured the attention of many in the public and the media, in fact, these organizations made up less than 10% of the those participating on January 6. The vast majority of those protesting that day were ordinary pro-Trump protesters. The combination of military-grade tactical gear - including bullet-resistant vests and flex cuffs - alongside Trump kitsch, white nationalist symbols, and military attire, highlighted the particular form of toxic masculinity underpinning efforts to “stop the steal” and “restore” the nation into a mythical period when the benefits of white masculinity were more certain. Though the crowd was anything but monolithic, many of those in attendance were white men over the age of 35. An a estimated 1 in 5 of those participating had affiliations with the U.S. military or law enforcement, and several of those arrested have histories of violence against women.
In the immediate aftermath, politicians and the media expressed shock and dismay, repeatedly characterizing the event as “unprecedented” and “un-American” in ways that sidestepped the fundamental role of violence, racism, and suppression in US history and politics. In fact, the images an footage from January 6 harken back to the nadir of the American experience when, during the Reconstruction era, white mobs attacked Black freedom aspirations throughout the South or when gleeful crowds with gallows and weapons reveled in their white supremacist position to brutalize African American communities through legal and extra-legal violence. Though many in the GOP initially condemned the actions of the protesters, 147 Republicans voted against the certification of the election directly after the insurrection. In the six months following January 6 and the impeachment trial and subsequent acquittal of former President Trump, a seemingly fracturing Republican Party has coalesced around the so-called “Big Lie,” reframing January 6 as a "normal tourist visit" and commencing an extraordinary campaign of spin and duplicity downplaying the insurrection, despite extensive footage and documentation of the fear, confusion, and distress in the Capitol that day. The GOP embrace of the “Big Lie” offers a politically expedient means for an overwhelmingly white minority party long in decline to retain power: Trump lost by more than 7 million votes in 2020, despite extensive gerrymandering, stacked courts, and voter suppression designed to prevent such an outcome.
There is no doubt that on January 6, the U.S. came astonishingly close to a coup, fomented over years by a President and his allies who peddled misinformation and lies, actively courted white nationalists, and consistently tended to a politics of white injury and rage. Yet to locate white supremacy within the realm of militias, mobs, and Trumpism not only misunderstands white supremacy as a structuring relation, but also reinforces it by reducing it to the extraordinary and spectacular, and within the worldview of extremists. Rather, we maintain that white supremacy must be understood as a political economic and racial project that spans ideologies and political commitments within the operations of the liberal, settler state. We situate the 6th of January and the events that have unfolded since not just within the era of Trump, and its “spectacular violences” (Pulido et al., 2019), but within the longer histories of racial capitalism and (settler) colonial domination (Inwood, 2019). Here we make two interrelated arguments: first, we revisit the meanings of white supremacy and challenge reductionist framings for their potential to obscure white supremacy’s systemic deployments. Second, we discuss the fundamentally undemocratic nature of whiteness and white supremacy. We contend that even as the January 6 events have historical resonance, they signal a racial realignment and reworking of racial regimes in the context of new contradictions. This connects the events of 6 January to longer histories within the US even as they are grounded within present conditions.
In theorizing white supremacy, we reject any notion of white supremacy as singular and transhistorical. We posit white supremacy not as a grand, unchanging conspiracy of race, but rather as a relation of power, a historically shifting logic of socio-spatial organization, situated within capitalist social relations and across a broad political spectrum and an array of identities that are mutually articulated. Thus, our aim is not meant to reaffirm an unchanging, coherent understanding of whiteness and white supremacy, but rather to theorize how both are fictions made material through capitalist differentiation. Whiteness is not simply a racial identity or category, but rather a relation that produces differential life chances and material advantages. Its meanings and affiliations have always been contested and in flux, yet because whiteness is associated with material benefits, it is a valorized and valued asset and identity. Generations of possessive investments in whiteness (Harris, 1993; Lipsitz, 2006) and its “paltry dividends” (Kelley, 2020) - in the form of opportunities, mobility, asset accumulation - have (re)produced the structures, relations, and geographies of white supremacy (Bonds and Inwood, 2015). White supremacy, in all of its historical and dynamic forms, is a logic of “race,” produced in place through variegated landscapes of difference . Its genealogies orient the state and the uneven distribution of power, land, and wealth in the U.S. in specifically racialized ways, but it can never be reduced to these histories (Rodríguez, 2021). White supremacy should therefore never be distilled to a singular worldview or political category; rather it must be understood as a system of racialized privilege, embedded and reproduced within the everyday operations of the racial settler state.
Given this understanding, we see a real danger in reducing white supremacy to events, such as the January 6 insurrection. To focus only on the militias, the heavily armed white men, and the extraordinary violence of the Trump agenda and Trump-era policies, draws our eyes away from the banality of white supremacy and its everyday enactments and reproduction by conservatives and liberals alike (Pulido et al., 2019). This distinction speaks to this contemporary political moment in important ways. First, mainstream understandings of the insurrection conflate white nationalism with white supremacy in ways that curtail analysis of its everyday, liberal formulations. Such a framing opens space for the reconfiguration of the settler state around the idea of multicultural democracy, leaving the underlying white supremacist workings of structural racism outside of critical scrutiny. Indeed, as others have argued, we emphasize the emergence of a “multiracial whiteness” (Beltran, 2020) that unites the ostensibly colorblind politics of hostile individualism and privatism (Lipsitz, 2006) with a rejection of so-called “identity politics” or any recognition of the social relations of difference (see also Melamed, 2011; Rodríguez, 2021).
Second, the insurrection and embrace of the false narrative of a “stolen” election must be situated within a broader, and much longer terrain of struggle over the sources and structures of inequality. Trump emerged and came very close to being reelected through the dialectics of struggle in an historical moment characterized by the global rise of right-wing populism, resurging nationalisms, and neoliberal precarity and overt voter suppression tactics (Kelley, 2020). Even as Trumpism mobilizes whiteness, drawing on long established racial tropes and animus, it is not a past oriented politics, but rather a reflection of the contradictions and struggles of our time (ibid.; HoSang and Lowndes, 2020; Rodríguez, 2021). We cannot discount the popularity of Trumpism in response to the Movement for Black Lives and the movements of 2020 following the police murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, which challenged not just the legitimacy of policing, but also the interconnected violences of capitalism and state abandonment during a pandemic. These movements condemn and expose the fundamentally antidemocratic nature of white supremacy as a socio-spatial form. As Joel Olson (2004) argues, the US has largely existed as a white Herrenvolk democracy, a system of governance in which only the majority ethnic group participates (see also Mills, 2011; Beltran, 2020). This is not to suggest that a Herrenvolk democracy works well for all whites--it does not. Instead, it enshrines power within a small elite while claiming to advance the broader national interest.
The insurrection of January 6, we argue, was a partial and ongoing response to perceived threats to this racial order. Working both through space and over time, the logics and forms of white supremacy are reconfigured and articulated in defense of whiteness and in resistance to even modest efforts to expand democracy and share power with working peoples. Yet even as Trump and his allies vie for political power in a post-Twitter, post-January 6 America, the restoration of (neo)liberal white supremacy is underway. As a result, we argue that solely focusing on the most extreme forms of white nationalism, we cede terrain to the workings of the white supremacist state as it uses this crisis to reassert itself.
At its most basic level, whiteness is an anti-democratic position that includes efforts to limit the political power of the working class and peoples of color (Du Bois, 2017; Olson 2004). Various and overlapping strategies have been deployed to achieve these ends throughout U.S. history, including legal and extra-legal maneuvering to restrict the power of the vote and the overturning of democratic elections (Cecelski 2000), lynching, and other forms of white racial terror (Tyner et al, 2014). Critically, any project aiming to take on the various ways that white organized resistance to movements for justice and freedom takes place must begin to differentiate the various ways whiteness operates and how, in moments of crisis, the state responds to reinforce the dominant structural conditions of the nation-state. Building through Gilmore's (1999) reminder that crisis should be broadly defined to include both the economic and social reproduction of society, we argue that 6 January reveals twinned processes of reaction that each deserve grounded and materially understood responses.
Only a cursory glance of white supremacist, anti-statest organizing over the last decade reveals a litany of previews to January 6, 2021: from armed standoffs with the federal government over grazing fees, the armed takeover of federal land, to secession calls that advocate for creating a separatist white settler state, and more recent efforts to take over state capitols and kidnap and execute state officials. In each of these examples, there is a kind of white entitlement to space that directly results from the way settler logics operate within the context of the U.S. racial state. For example, Dube (2020) notes within settler contexts, the ownership and possession of land is not only an enduring structure and source of conflict but also is grounded in an emotional attachment to the land that structures a feeling of belonging that comes to sanction a range of violences directed at perceived threats to ownership (see also Moreton-Robinson, 2015; Du Bois, 1999).
The rhetoric leading up to January 6th and the actions of demonstrators that day in many ways reflect the “spectacular racism” of the Trump administration (Pulido et al, 2019) and the shifting regimes of race emerging in a time of cleaving inequality and growing neoliberal precarity. Fueled by white grievances, racism and xenophobia, and revanchist demands of (re)possession, Trump directly appealed to a broader set of white nationalist calls to protect the American nation-state from various racialized and gendered threats. In both overt and covert ways, these appeals to white nationalism and white nationalist violence work to protect white supremacy cloaked as democracy and to forestall social movements and broader efforts to enact new forms of recognition and redistribution. White entitlement to space, to resources and infrastructures, and to power emerges from the possessive logics of whiteness and white supremacy (Du Bois, 1999; Moreton-Robinson, 2015; Harris, 1993; Lipsitz, 2006; Bonds, 2019). These logics operate in grounded, material ways, such as through the creation and fortification of white enclaves that operate as privatized forms of mutuality (Bonds, 2021) and through the circulation of commonsense discourses about ownership and control.
Contemporary white supremacy cannot be reduced to racial animus, nor to the Trump Administration, the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys. Yet the events leading up to January 6th and its aftermaths represent a critical moment in which the ideologies of whiteness and white supremacy are simultaneously more visible even as the structures of white domination are being reworked, normalized, and reinforced. For us, this illuminates how whiteness is always and everywhere under siege, justifying both state and extra-legal forms of violence to sustain hierarchies of difference and institutionalized systems of white supremacy. In fact, we note that a critical piece of understanding how white supremacy operates is through the consilience of the seemingly banal and spectacular into a broader and more sustained project of racial domination that is the heart of the white supremacist U.S. racial state. Perhaps no greater example of this exists than the Presidential election itself. Through an assemblage of the largest and most diverse political coalition in the nation’s history, Joe Biden, a lackluster candidate representing the liberal establishment, won the 2020 election by over seven million votes. However, despite this vote total and because of the electoral college, had around 48,000 votes changed hands in three key states, Donald J. Trump would have won a second term, and instead of swarming the Capitol in fury, his supporters would have been there to celebrate their “victory.” The whole process is an example of the “respectable” white supremacist reality in which the very structure of the political system itself is designed to hold at bay the popular will of the people.
Given these understandings, we suggest that what we witnessed on January 6th was part of a historically grounded and sustained racialized geography that is nonetheless giving rise to new relations of race that cannot be fully captured in past-oriented theorizations of white supremacy. If we take as true the quote from Liz Cheney that “Trump lit the flame” of the capitol insurrection, he was using a match left long smoldering through the socio-spatial realities of white supremacism within the United States. Yet, while the more extreme examples of white supremacism garner the most attention, we cannot lose sight of the fact that whiteness as an organizing logic of the US settler state is a continuously unfolding project that manifests in a range of socially “justified” structures.
As we write, Republican state legislators are using the idea of a “stolen election” to enact the most restrictive voting laws since the end of the civil rights struggle, a move made possible by the 2012 US Supreme Court decision that struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act, arguably one of the most important civil rights-era legislation. Democrats in Texas have fled the state to prevent the passage of new voter restrictions and to pressure Congress to pass federal legislation protecting the vote. The Voting Rights Act was won through the bodily sacrifice of organizers, everyday people, and civil rights workers who were beaten, jailed, and in some cases murdered in the fight to secure the franchise. Yet a July 2021 Supreme Court ruling decided by a newly empowered conservative majority further eviscerated what little remained of the 1965 Act. Despite losing the popular vote in 2000, Bush “won” the election because of the electoral college and then leveraged this victory to remake the Supreme Court in a way that has expanded white supremacist efforts to undermine the ability for working class people and communities of color to participate in US elections. This kind of maneuvering within the “respectable” grounds of politics speaks to our broader argument that whiteness in the US is fundamentally undemocratic and relies on systematic exclusions that both include but also go far beyond overt acts of violence.
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Anne Bonds is an associate professor of geography and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Her research and teaching interests include feminist political economy, race and racialization, and carceral and abolition geographies.
Joshua Inwood is a professor of geography at Penn State University. His research seeks to understand the social, political and economic structures that make human lives vulnerable to all manner of exploitations, as well as how oppressed populations use social justice movements to change their material conditions.