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In Capitol riot, racism looms large

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Members of the mob proudly displayed a noose, waved a Confederate flag, and wore articles of clothing that celebrate persecution. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/ALEX EDELMAN

The recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol incited by President Donald Trump was deplorable, unpatriotic, and criminal. In this age of complicated race relations, as this event highlights, we must continue to acknowledge the ugly, multifaceted role of racism in our national life.

Members of this seditious mob proudly displayed a noose, waved a Confederate flag, and wore articles of clothing that celebrate persecution — all symbols of the white hegemony Trump has encouraged. This is racism.

The law enforcement preparation and response to this white mob inexplicably paled in comparison to the force shown, and arrests made, at Black Lives Matter protests in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Portland — where military tanks, assault rifles, riot gear, and rubber bullets were deployed. This is racism.

One wonders with trepidation what would have transpired had the mob been composed largely of Black people. Would the same number of arrests have been made? Would law enforcement have had a bigger presence, and would they have been outfitted in riot gear with more weaponry? Would a police officer pose for a "selfie" with insurgents as they stormed the Capitol?

It was appallingly fitting that shortly before the riots began outside, Sen. Ted Cruz was inside peddling dog whistle hogwash to stoke the same antiquated devotion to white supremacy that fuels racial inequity. The Compromise of 1877, which Cruz invoked, gave Rutherford Hayes the presidency with an infamous Faustian bargain: in return for Democrats conceding the disputed election, Republican Hayes agreed to remove the U.S. military from the South, effectively ending postwar Reconstruction and federal enforcement of key constitutional protections. This paved the way for Jim Crow, the rise of the KKK, and generally one of the saddest chapters in our history.

A duty of all responsible citizens is to call out injustice whenever it lurks. In this moment of crisis, we must continue to highlight these forms of racism. For when the dust of time settles over our cities, and history writes our generation’s story, we need to be on the right side of that story.

Part of this must be holding criminals accountable and pushing fringe lunacy into what Ronald Reagan labeled "the ash heap of history." But another part is reexamining who we are, who we wish to be, and how we can forge a future that better reflects the values of the world’s oldest democracy.

If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," then this has to be a moment in which we fight more viscerally to bend that arc. This has to be a moment in which we reclaim our national purpose and settle for all time certain "self-evident truths." This has to be a moment when we collectively shun the political cancer in our midst, regardless of party — not because we seek people’s votes, but because it is right.

The Declaration of Independence has a stirring conclusion that ought to remind us of the interwoven nature of our existence: "We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." We mutually pledge to each other. This pledge, in its modern form, has no room for racism. Our work continues.

Scott D. Reich, of Port Washington, is an author and historian who teaches the course on Communication and the Presidency at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Public Service. He is the author of "The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation."