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Don’t Let Right-Wing Extremists Hijack Our National Narrative

A white-supremacist mob's attack on the Capitol diverted attention from some dramatic electoral victories, a rejection of authoritarianism and the continuing need to confront racism and inequality.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images/TNS)
The attack on the U.S. Capitol last week was a low point in the history of the United States. Investigations are underway, and several U.S. House members have already introduced an article of impeachment against President Trump over his instigation of this act of insurrection. The fear of right-wing extremists has reverberated down to the state and local levels, bringing an increased emphasis on the security of public officials and facilities. Many Americans are angry, afraid and uncertain about our future.

It is sad that we have gotten to this point, but what is even sadder is the way Trump's radicalized mob distracted Americans from focusing on record-breaking rises in infections and deaths from the coronavirus and on the significance for the country and for governing of the elections of Georgia's first African American and Jewish U.S. senators.

Last Wednesday, as it was becoming apparent that both the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had won their Senate runoff victories, I received a congratulatory note from a fellow writer. He and I had tussled over how much Georgia's politics had actually changed and over whether or not a Democrat stood a chance of winning a statewide runoff election. I wrote to him that I thought Warnock's winning message held out hope for all Georgians, including white rural residents, if they could move beyond the racism that has been part of the history of this country and certainly of the South.

Warnock — constantly attacked by his opponent Kelly Loeffler, who had been appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to fulfill the unexpired term of Sen. Johnny Isakson, as a Black radical, socialist and cop-hater — kept his cool and told stories of growing up in public housing in Savannah and being awakened early each day by his father and told to put on his work shoes. "If a poor kid like me can make it, anyone can make it," he told Georgians. Warnock's message, of a poor Black man with the odds stacked against him making a success of himself with a little help from his government like a Pell Grant or two, should resonate with unemployed and underemployed whites. Trump has tapped into the fears and anxieties of this group, but has offered them nothing more than false hope.

And herein lies our problem: At a time we should be discussing the meaning of Warnock's victory and Ossoff's over Sen. David Perdue, and celebrating their significance not only to the Democrats but to our nation as a whole, the white supremacists invading and ransacking the Capitol hijacked the day and made the narrative all about their misplaced grievances.

The Warnock and Ossoff victories pointed to a new method of organizing and engaging communities at all levels. Along with others, former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams and former state Sen. Nikema Williams, who was recently sworn in to replace the late civil rights icon John Lewis in Congress, started building an infrastructure for victory 10 years ago that consisted of registering new voters and protecting the ballot in the courts. Their army was a coalition of current and past local elected officials, young voters, suburban moderates and people of color led by Black women.

In some regards, the organizers kept together and mobilized the participants of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that had come together last year to protest police killings of unarmed African Americans. Many of us thought these protesters had run out of gas and that the nation had turned a deaf ear to their legitimate demands. Instead, they had been redirected into electoral politics and were key to Georgia's remarkable victories and many others across this nation.

The neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who have become emboldened by President Trump's lies and his stoking of their fears also fear the rise in power of Black and brown Americans demanding that the country deal with deeply embedded and systematic racism that has held them back and only marginally, if at all, benefited the average white American. The victories in Georgia provided the nation an opportunity to assess, if not celebrate, two milestones. But with the attack on the Capitol, all the air was removed from the room where the remarkable victories resided, and the beauty of interracial cooperation and unity got swept aside. Instead we witnessed a meltdown as Republicans turned against one another while many even joined Trump in his charades about voter fraud.

Diverted by all of the attention on the Capitol attack, an act supported by too many Americans who identify as Republican, we are losing sight of important stories we need to tell ourselves and the rest of the world: The majority of Americans have stood up and rejected authoritarianism, and they have elected as vice president the first woman of color who is the daughter of immigrants. A majority of Georgia's voters have sent an heir to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ministry to the upper chamber of Congress along with a 33-year-old Jewish millennial. These have given our country a chance to set itself on a plane to address the long-standing internal contradictions that threaten to tear apart our fragile and imperfect democracy.

White supremacy did not just spring up when Trump was elected president. It has been festering in our nation for centuries. But it only can survive today when there is a large and sympathetic American public that coddles, dismisses or denies it. For years, African Americans and others have warned the nation that denying justice and democracy to any group in America is a denial of justice for all. America must start hearing the voices and stories of Black Americans and heed the warnings. In addition to combating racism and domestic terrorism, government leaders at all levels, for all citizens, must address police brutality and criminal justice reform, health disparities, the critical shortage of affordable housing, gaps in educational opportunity, and income inequality.

These will be the real challenges to governing over the next five years. Let no member of our body politic enter this arena unless they are willing to accept this mandate.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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