By Andrea Custis, James Elam, Lisa Finkelstein, Shira Goodman, Jared Jackson, and Eva Porter
Since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, two themes have frequently emerged in the popular consciousness: the role of systemic racism in empowering the attempted insurrection and calls for unity in its wake.
While unity is an important and desirable goal, it can only happen in conjunction with accountability and change – we must unite not over mere platitudes but with the specific shared goal of fighting white supremacy not only in the form it took on January 6 but also in the many other forms it takes.
As leaders in organizations that serve Black communities, Latinx communities, Jews of color, and broader Jewish communities, we know that we face a common enemy in white supremacy and that we must face it together.
The domestic terrorists who attacked our Capitol wore racist and antisemitic clothing, recorded their attack, and triumphantly marched a Confederate flag through the halls of the Capitol building. This mix of racism and antisemitism was not an accident, nor was its display a coincidence.
They wanted an audience. White supremacist ideology depends on the degradation of Black people, other people of color, and Jews. The goal of the January 6 attack was not merely to assert political power. It was to assert white power and create fear, anxiety, and stress in these communities.
Our communities. While we are not a monolith and each person had their own emotional response to what happened, most of us also understood that we were the intended audience for this attack, targeted with a message meant to be a warning or threat of future harm. This failed insurrection is as clear a sign as can be that we – people of color and Jews of all races – face a common threat.
If we are to address the threat of white supremacist extremism, we must consider how and where it thrives. The power structures that enabled this failed insurrection are the same ones that maintain systemic racism in the United States.
This is evident in the ways that the rioters behaved.
Seemingly every day, more information comes out suggesting that significant planning went into this attack, yet almost none of the rioters covered their faces and they brazenly recorded themselves and each other committing crimes while announcing their names. Now, they seem largely caught off guard that there are serious legal consequences for their actions.
This is what it looks like when people who have always benefitted from systems that accorded them power and privilege are emboldened by their own sense of grievance: they are so sure of their own position that they don’t imagine there will be consequences.
This is what it looks like when people who never had cause to fear the police commit a collective act of domestic terrorism: it doesn’t occur to them that law enforcement may not always be on their side.
While a conversation has begun and must continue about the disparate treatment of the rioters by law enforcement on Jan. 6 compared to how Black Lives Matter protestors were treated over this past year, there needs to be a larger conversation about the disparate treatment that the overwhelmingly white rioters have received throughout their lives compared to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color.
The problem runs much deeper than “a few bad apples” or any singular failures in law enforcement, though those must surely be addressed. The problem is structural and inherent not only to law enforcement but also to education, healthcare, economic, and all the other systems that impact people’s lives. We cannot hope to successfully fight white supremacist extremists unless we also address the context in which their ideology was forged, which means fighting systemic racism at all levels.
We’ve been building to the insurrection at the Capitol for years, with a fevered acceleration these last few months. We’ve watched as hatred, anger, and entitlement have been unleashed in deeply troubling ways. The threats and danger persist and will not end with the inauguration of a new president.
The problem is deeply entrenched and requires real work, dedication, and a willingness to dismantle its foundations. We must work to fight the threats we face together, for this is the only way that we can truly hope to defeat white supremacy in the long term. Yes, we must fight extremism – but if we want to be effective, we must also fight the systemic racism that emboldens it.
We must support agendas of reform and investment that will make real change and identify and push back against the policies that will block advances.
Let’s empower our community members with the necessary tools to exercise the right to vote and to petition the government so that creative solutions are not the province of only the powerful and resourced. If we unite in the common goal of empowering our communities and addressing systemic racism now, we can make this country better for all members of the next generation.
Andrea Custis writes on behalf of the Urban League of Philadelphia. James Elam & Lisa Finkelstein write on behalf of the Black-Jewish Alliance of the ADL. Shira Goodman writes on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, Philadelphia Region. Jared Jackson writes on behalf of Jews in ALL Hues. And Eva Porter writes on behalf of LULAC Philadelphia.