Up Next


Attack on the Capitol shows America’s racial double standard is alive and well

Police handled white rioters with kid gloves, even posing for selfies

The legendary writer James Baldwin memorably summed up America’s racial double standard more than a half-century ago. Sadly, his words remain as true today as they were then:

“If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death, the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin told talk show host Dick Cavett in 1969. “When a Black man says the exact same thing — word for word — he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad n—– so there won’t be any more like him.”

For African Americans, Wednesday’s siege of the U.S. Capitol by a mob bent on keeping President Donald Trump in office despite his election loss in November offered fresh evidence that the double standard and the racism that Baldwin spoke of remain firmly in place.

For Black folks, the disturbing spectacle on Jan. 6 was not just a startling incursion on democracy, but also an infuriating reminder of the injustice they have endured throughout American history.

Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images

The televised scenes of rioters attacking the nation’s most hallowed symbol of liberty and democracy stunned many Americans. Thousands of intruders, some armed with metal pipes and chemical irritants, swarmed police barricades and streamed onto the Capitol grounds. Many of them then stormed into the Capitol building, where they invaded the Senate and House chambers, rummaged through desks and vandalized congressional offices. One carried out a lectern bearing the seal of the Speaker of the House of Representatives’ office. Another brazenly posed for pictures while casually leaning back in a chair, with one foot on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Some carried Trump flags or American flags as they roamed the building. Several waved Confederate banners.

Police said they found two pipe bombs on Capitol grounds. Meanwhile, members of Congress were forced to shelter in place for several hours until they could be safely evacuated.

For Black folks, the disturbing spectacle was not just a startling incursion on democracy, but also an infuriating reminder of the injustice they have endured throughout American history. Many wondered: How would this have played out if many of the rioters were Black?

We got a glimpse of the answer during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis police in May. When protesters hit the streets in Washington, police and the National Guard were out in force. Humvees occupied street corners throughout official Washington, and phalanxes of law enforcement officers were deployed to protect federal buildings.

When Trump wanted to have a photo opportunity at a church near the White House, authorities fired rubber bullets and tear gas to clear his path of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters.

On Wednesday, there were some furious battles between police and intruders, and one rioter was shot to death by a police officer as she tried to force her way into the Capitol. A Capitol Police officer died after being attacked by protesters during the rampage. But for the most part, the mob met only mild resistance from the 2,000-strong Capitol Police force.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said the response of law enforcement highlighted the racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system.

Police intervene as supporters of President Donald Trump breach security and enter the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We have witnessed two systems of justice: one that let extremists storm the U.S. Capitol yesterday, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protesters last summer,” she said. “It’s simply unacceptable.”

Her criticism echoed that of President-elect Joe Biden, who said, “No one can tell me that if that had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund said in a statement that his officers “responded valiantly” against armed attackers. Yet, his officers were caught on video opening barricades, allowing the crowd to pour onto the Capitol grounds. Other footage showed officers seemingly stepping aside as the mob streamed into the Capitol. One video on social media showed an officer posing for a selfie with an intruder. Another captured an officer helping a trespasser down the Capitol steps. On Thursday, Sund abruptly announced plans to resign.

As it unfolded, the siege was applauded by Trump and some of his closest advisers. In a since-deleted tweet, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, called the mob “American Patriots” as she asked them to be peaceful. Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani said those who stormed the Capitol were on “the right side of the law and history” so long as they remained peaceful. Trump, meanwhile, told them, “We love you. You’re very special.”

Law enforcement had to know that the demonstrators might try to force their way into the Capitol to stop the congressional certification of Biden’s Election Day victory. For several weeks, Trump supporters talked openly on social media about staging a violent protest when Congress met to formally confirm the election result. But there was no overwhelming police presence to deter them.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, whose city offered law enforcement help to Washington, condemned the siege as an “attack on democracy” and an “act of treason.”

He also channeled Baldwin, adding: “This is what white supremacy and white privilege look like, if anyone ever wanted to know.”

It was a theme repeated by Kimberle´ Crenshaw, a law professor and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a think tank.

“For doubters about whether white privilege exists, I give you Exhibits A-C,” she said in a tweet. “For staging an attempted coup, occupying the capitol & attacking cops, you’re a patriot not a thug; a protester, not a treasonist insurrectionist & you get to walk out, not be carried out. Any questions?”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.