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At the Jan. 6 hearings, race isn't discussed much. Still, it's a central issue

Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the Jan. 6 Committee, speaks virtually during a hearing on July 21.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the Jan. 6 Committee, speaks virtually during a hearing on July 21.

In the opening moments of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, Chairman Bennie Thompson drew a line across history, connecting the Lost Cause to the Big Lie.

"I'm from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching," Thompson began.

"I'm reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021."

The Lost Cause is the racist myth that justifies chattel slavery. It tells a false story of generous slave owners and happy slaves, as well as lies that the Civil War wasn't really fought over slavery — it was about states' rights. Everything that follows, the nadir of American race relations, the violent dismantling of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the erections of Confederate monuments and the conflation of a treasonous Confederate flag with patriotism, are all in the name of this Lost Cause.

The Big Lie has come to mean the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election but that it was stolen from him. It was a lie so large that it drove the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and extended out to include another lie, one that painted the violent attempt to overturn the election as a peaceful protest.

Just as the Lost Cause denied the brutal racism of slavery in order to perpetuate violent inequity through other means, at the heart of the Big Lie is also a drive to protect a racist order, according to Stanford University political scientist Hakeem Jefferson.

The Lost Cause and the lie that Trump won the 2020 election are myths to justify violence and preserve white power

Jefferson says both the Lost Cause and the Big Lie are myths meant to justify — and at the same time deny the existence of — violence meant to preserve white power.

Thompson's direct mention of race and America's legacy of racism at the top of the hearings was a bit of an aberration. There has been little direct mention of race during the televised hearings, which paused in August and are set to resume in September.

While not a criminal trial, the proceedings have had a legal laser focus, to show the culpability of the former president.

But just the symbolism of Thompson at the helm of the hearings places race and history on display, Jefferson says.

"How striking to see someone who looks like Bennie Thompson wield this amount of institutional power, against a person like Donald Trump, who is awash in the markings of whiteness and privilege and all that it affords."

Trump, born into his wealth, has previously peddled a racist conspiracy theory denying the legitimacy of the nation's first Black president. Thompson got his start in politics registering Black people to vote in Mississippi during the civil rights movement.

It's Thompson's very Black Southern-ness that allows him to "weave into this narrative, both explicitly and implicitly by way of his identity, how much this has to do about race," Jefferson says.

"We were watching, in real time, a racial backlash"

"It's not by some dent of the universe or some sort of random act that the faces that we see in these photographs and videos from Jan. 6 are a bunch of white people," Jefferson says.

"We were watching, in real time, a racial backlash."

More precisely, he says, it is part of a white backlash against the very perception of racial progress and the idea, unrealized though it may be, of multiracial democracy.

"Some white people are really concerned about a loss of power and status in American society," Jefferson says.

Jefferson says at the center of the Jan. 6 insurrection is the maintenance of white power. But not all white power cloaks itself in a white hood.

"It is also about the power to tell a narrative of one's self and one's identity group," he says. "The power some white people want to hold onto is a power of narrative."

"So it's not about power that's maintained by burning crosses. It's about power that's maintained about telling some stories and not some others in schools," he says. "It's about power to elect people who you think will do your bidding."

It is also about power, Jefferson says, that has been wielded explicitly through the disenfranchisement of others. When Republicans "talk about protecting 'our' country and making sure 'our' country isn't taken away from us by other people," Jefferson says, "the 'our' is doing some work here."

"What's implied is that this country is moving in a direction where white people have less power."

Supporters of President Donald Trump take the steps on the east side of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
/ NurPhoto via Getty Images
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NurPhoto via Getty Images
Supporters of President Donald Trump take the steps on the east side of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

That, says political scientist Robert Pape, is what drove the events of Jan. 6, 2021. "What we are really observing are the consequences of the fear of white status decline," Pape says.

Pape, the director of the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, has been researching those who were arrested for storming the Capitol, digging into the data of who was there that day.

The results have surprised him. "Of the over 800 people who have been arrested on Jan. 6, we see a striking pattern," he says.

The pattern?

"They don't fit the profile of a far-right extremist."

Fox's Tucker Carlson consistently denies that Jan. 6 had anything to do with race

At Fox News, Tucker Carlson, who has peddled variations of the Big Lie, has consistently denied that the Jan. 6 insurrection had anything to do with race. A few months after the riot at the Capitol, he spoke to his nightly average of 3 million viewers: "There's no evidence that white supremacists were responsible for what happened on Jan. 6. That's a lie," he said.

"Contrary to what you've been hearing, there's also no evidence that this was a, quote, 'armed insurrection.' "

Except there is evidence on both counts.

In June of this year, Carlson again reiterated the building blocks of the Big Lie to his audience, both in denying the culpability of the pro-Trump Jan. 6 crowd, hinting that FBI agents were planted in it, and in suggesting the 2020 election was compromised. "A lot of the protesters on Jan. 6 were very upset about that, and they should have been, all of us should be," he ranted. "But the Jan. 6 Committee ignored all of that completely. Instead, on the basis of zero evidence, no evidence whatsoever, they blamed the entire riot on white supremacy."

Unpacking almost anything Carlson says is like having to undo a Russian nesting doll of falsehoods, dangerous innuendos and outright lies. The Jan. 6 Committee has very carefully not come out and blamed the riot on white supremacy. In fact, it has had a light to almost nonexistent touch when addressing the role of race in the insurrection.

Instead, the committee has carefully crafted a credible narrative that blames Trump's lies about a stolen election for riling up the crowd.

But why was this crowd so susceptible to those lies, and why did they act so violently in response to them? That, says political scientist Pape, has everything to do with race and the preservation of white supremacy.

The counties with the greatest decline in the non-Hispanic white population produced the most rioters

While members of violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers certainly helped plot the attack and were mixed in among the swelling crowds, "nearly 90%" of the people arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 "are not members of these militant extremist groups," Pape says.

They were mostly white and mostly men, but other factors are markedly different: "We see that over half of those charged with breaking into the Capitol are business owners, CEOs, are from white-collar occupations — doctors, lawyers, architects, accountants," Pape says.

Most traveled to Washington from their homes in suburbs and cities, places that Joe Biden won. And this is what is so key, Pape says. The ZIP codes that the insurrections call home "are the parts of the country where diversity is happening the fastest."

"The counties that lost the most non-Hispanic white population are the counties that produced the most Jan. 6 insurrectionists," Pape says.

They came from places that used to be almost all white and aren't anymore.

Pape says that this fact parallels another recent incident of explicitly racist violence: a white supremacist's targeting and killing of 10 Black people at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., this May.

The shooter went to a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of a diverse city to commit a racist massacre. But the place he came from, Broome County, is small, population-wise, but has a rapidly shifting population.

"It's in the top 15% of counties who have lost non-Hispanic white population since 2010," Pape says. Broome County, like many of the places that produced insurrectionists, is becoming less and less white.

Pape says people, like the shooter and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, are being radicalized online and by right-wing media and politicians. Taken together with living in places that are no longer white spaces, it creates a toxic mix.

"This is dovetailing with rhetoric by politicians and by media figures — stoking fear about the great replacement," he says.

The racism of replacement theory, a conspiracy theory peddled by the likes of Carlson, purports that people of color are replacing white people as part of a nefarious Democratic plan to take power and steal elections.

And it is no longer a fringe ideology; it's now believed by a majority of Republicans. Nearly 7 out of 10 Republicans believe replacement theory ideas, a recent poll from the Southern Poverty Law Center found.

Pape's research shows that the driving force among the insurrectionists — and those who support them — is replacement theory. The conspiracy theory is a racist lie, but the fear it stokes is real — fear that the white majority is becoming a minority and will have to give up power.

And that isn't just driving elections and politics, Pape says. It's driving violence.

"What's dangerous is when a group like this begins to adopt the mindset or the rhetoric of an oppressed minority," says Jefferson, the Stanford political scientist.

Jefferson says when members of a group that still holds very real privilege, like white people, imagine themselves on the margins — that is precisely the moment when violent white nationalism takes hold.

The right to vote remains fragile

Race has been a subtext in much of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, simmering beneath the surface. Most of the witnesses have been Republicans and Trump loyalists, telling their story of that day and the days leading up to it, often from the inside. The story presented has been that of a petulant, out-of-control president, desperate to hold onto power.

But there is one notable exception: Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss.

"I've always been told by my grandmother," Moss told the committee and the country, her voice shaking slightly, "how important it is to vote and how people before me, a lot of people, older people in my family, did not have that right."

Moss and her mother are Black women, and both were poll workers during the 2020 elections.

Moss told the committee she loved her job and she was proud to help people vote, especially older folks. Her job was not partisan; she didn't work in the service of one party or another. Her work was to help average, everyday voters, to facilitate the small moments that make democracy function.

Then she was falsely and publicly accused by Trump of tampering with votes. After he called out her and her mother by name, they were bombarded with death threats and racist harassment.

Jefferson says these two women represent the opposite of people in power — they represent the right of the average person to vote. "So many Black people, Black women in particular, work on these front lines of democracy," he says.

Shaye Moss, a former Georgia election worker, is comforted by her mother, Ruby Freeman, as Moss testifies during a hearing of the Jan. 6 Committee on June 21.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Shaye Moss, a former Georgia election worker, is comforted by her mother, Ruby Freeman, as Moss testifies during a hearing of the Jan. 6 Committee on June 21.

They often do so, Jefferson says, because voting is a right that for many was achieved only in recent memory. Black people have an intimate understanding of how precious — and how fragile — the right to vote has been and still is.

Increasingly fragile, Jefferson says, because America's incomplete multiracial democracy is in grave peril.

The Jan. 6 insurrection was not, in the end, a successful coup. But, Jefferson says, the spectacle of that day both reveals and conceals much more subtle threats.

"Americans are really responsive to the spectacular," he says. "The problem for us is that democracy dies not often in these moments of the spectacular." Instead, it dies "in these sort of incremental or seemingly legal — or at least procedural — ways of taking away and short-circuiting democracy."

That slow-moving threat is happening right now, Jefferson says, and it's being driven by the Republican Party.

This racial project has been about maintaining white power at the expense of democracy

The Supreme Court is set to take a case that could allow a fringe legal theory to give state legislatures control of elections, leaving the choice of who gets power in the hands of those who already have it. Because of gerrymandering, many state legislatures don't function as representative democracies, especially as maps are drawn to dilute and diminish the votes of people of color. A temporary Supreme Court ruling this February made it even more difficult to push back against deliberate racial gerrymandering.

And then there are voter suppression laws, like some of the ones now on the books in Georgia, overseen by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

When Raffensperger spoke at one of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, he was lauded and applauded for standing up for democracy and against Trump.

But back in his home state of Georgia, he is championing laws that make it harder for people of color to vote.

"January the 6th was a racial project," Jefferson says. "But the everyday undos and attacks on American democracy are also a part of a racial project."

It is a racial project as old as the Lost Cause, reborn in the Big Lie. The project has always been about maintaining white power, often at the expense of democracy itself.

It is part of a larger battle that has never really ended, over whose votes get counted and whose votes get to count.

To Jefferson, race is not just the elephant in the room during the Jan. 6 Committee hearings. "It's the whole damn room," he says.

"This is all about race all the time."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.