White backlash to racial equality — including an empowered Black electorate — isn’t unusual. In fact, what makes the dynamic disturbing is how common it’s been throughout US history. And the issue isn’t just the backlash itself. It’s also the fear (real or alleged) of backlash — fear that might hold back progress.
And while the attack on the Capitol was horrifying, it wasn’t the first manifestation of White backlash. In important ways, this episode echoed the past.
The years immediately following the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw the ratification of the three Reconstruction amendments. The 13th Amendment ended slavery; the 14th Amendment made it such that all people could be US citizens, regardless of race; and the 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
White backlash was also apparent during the struggle for Black freedom in the mid-20th century.
The rioters who violently took over the Capitol last week had a lot in common with their forebears, particularly in their expressions of White grievance and entitlement and in their zero-sum belief that sharing rights and resources isn’t a gain for everyone but, instead, a loss that White Americans shouldn’t have to endure.
Crucially, while Trump’s loss in November — and more precisely, the outgoing President’s false claims that a free and fair election was fraudulent — was the most immediate catalyst of last week’s iteration of White backlash, Trump didn’t create the underlying racial resentment.
“Once Trump is no longer President, I worry that people are going to attempt to move past this faster than they should, that they’re going to say: Now back to some semblance of normalcy. But the unrest had been growing even before Trump,” she added in a recent interview.
The deadly assault on the Capitol has fit into the history of White backlash in another way, too: in how it has influenced — or really, circumscribed — conversations on what an “acceptable” path forward looks like.
It’s the sort of thinking that prizes reconciliation over justice.
“For some in power, the reason not to impeach isn’t an argument based on politics or on justice but on the notion that if you want to stay out of trouble, then you shouldn’t impeach. This sentiment is common,” Glickman told CNN. “In other words, White backlash can obstruct progress, but it’s not always the backlash itself but the threat of backlash that impedes progress in US history.”
That said, Glickman detected something of a silver lining to the events of the past week.
While the seizure of the Capitol demonstrated anew that White backlash can lead to a brutal end, Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5 illustrated that it’s possible to thwart weaponized racial grievance.
In this wider context, Democrats’ recent political triumphs feel all the more significant.
“I think that it’s important not to predict that we’re fated to be controlled by White backlash,” Glickman said. “Because that doesn’t give Americans enough credit for their own agency in determining our future.”