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Robert Benjamin is a former Baltimore Sun reporter, foreign correspondent and editor.
The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is now nearly two months past. Donald Trump is in his gilded Florida palace. With a steady and quiet hand, President Joe Biden is tackling the mammoth task of rebuilding the nation’s health and economy.
But the driving force behind the events of Jan. 6 is not going away by a long shot. It can be summed up by one number: 2045.
That is the year in which non-Hispanic white people will become a minority in this country, according to the latest U.S. Census projection.
Keep in mind, the actual year in which nonwhite Americans would predominate nationally in terms of eligible voters might not take place until a decade or more after that.
Still, the mounting prospect of that looming demographic nail in the coffin of white power already appears to have struck desperate fear in a considerable share of voters, enough at least to give rise to and sustain what is now called “Trumpism.”
Sure, Trump’s base of support includes rich folks and corporations wanting lower taxes, opponents of big government, right-wing judiciary advocates, the medical-pharmaceutical complex opposing universal health care, the defense industry wanting big spending, manufacturing workers looking for scapegoats for their stagnant wages and on and on. But at its core, fear over the loss of 400 years of white privilege burns hot.
Race has been the issue in this country since the first slave ship arrived in 1619. As yearning for freedom from England rose in the 18th century colonies, so did the blatant contradictions from colonists’ enslavement of Black people — for those who chose to think about it at the time.
Our Constitution writers were flummoxed by whether to count slaves as persons, ending up with an absurd but expedient three-fifths calculation. A century later, we of course fought a series of massacres known as the Civil War over the matter of race.
In the 1930s, when Jim Crow laws still reigned in large parts of the United States and the Nazis were trying to figure out how to deal with Germany’s Jews, they studied how America treated its Black citizens and decided some aspects of that were just too harsh, Isabel Wilkerson recounted in her recent penetrating book, “Caste.” Let’s review that: America in the 1930s — too harsh for the Nazis.
And almost 100 years later we have an attack on the Capitol — an attack on the U.S. Constitution — that was a lot of things, but at its essence was a race riot by white people with searing grievances over the fading privileges of their skin color.
Oh, yes, you can analyze the Jan. 6 insurrectionists any number of ways, in terms of economic displacement, the deleterious effects of the internet, Americans’ relatively low education levels and so on. All likely were factors. But let’s call it for what it was — a race riot — because race remains the foremost factor in American life.
Beyond the surfeit of superficial evidence — the rioters’ Confederate flags, the racist slogans on their T-shirts, their rampant use of the “N” word — this bears some deeper consideration.
As Wilkerson says, it’s not so much a matter of economics at work here but of status — or more specifically “dominant group status threat,” as it has been dubbed by political scientists.
Wilkerson cites the seminal writing of Lillian Smith, whose 1949 book about her Southern upbringing and the deep psychological underpinnings of the costs of segregation, “Killers of the Dream,” states:
“Nobody could take away from you this whiteness that made you and your way of life ‘superior.’ They could take your house, your job, your fun; they could steal your wages, keep you from acquiring knowledge … they could by arising your anxieties make you impotent, but they could not strip your white skin off of you.”
Smith concluded: “When people think more of their skin color than their souls, something has happened to them.”
Almost three-quarters of a century after she wrote this, that “something” was given vivid and terrifying expression on Jan. 6. Does anyone seriously doubt that?