Contextualizing January 6th: Patriotism, Race, and the Politics of Grievance

When stupidity is considered patriotism, it is unsafe to be intelligent. The easiest way to solve a problem is to deny that it exists.

Isaac Asimov

Patriotism in 21st Century America

In its simplest and purest form, patriotism is a strong identification and connection with the country and individuals who strongly identify as patriotic embrace a unique identity attached with that country.  However, whiteness is nearly inextricable with American patriotism. Myths associated with American patriotism persist notwithstanding attributable facts that can conceptually broaden the dimensions of American patriotism. Patriotism in America, particularly in the 21st century, is built upon a historical mythology of distorted truths.  In the minds of some Americans, patriotism is the preservation of the historical canon of myths. For this group, criticism of those myths and, more importantly, those who act on those myths, are considered anti-patriotic.  American patriotic canon simultaneously centers the experiences of white Americans as founders, conquerors, discoverers, and protectors, while also subordinating the contributions of other races and cultures. Research shows that because white Americans are centered in the American patriotic experience, a patriot/anti-patriot dichotomy often operates based upon race and ethnicity. This research means there is a greater tendency among white Americans who strongly identify as patriotic to subordinate what they perceive as inferior groups, which are often non-white racial and ethnic groups. The dynamics described create what can be called “white ownership” of American patriotism.  For example, earlier this year when this country’s first Black Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, called for an investigation into extremism in the U.S. military, social media groups comprised of active duty and veteran members of the special forces community responded with racial slurs and questioned whether Secretary Austin, a former four-star U.S. Army general, had earned his qualifications.  Contextually, less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population serves in the military with 60 percent of the U.S. military predominantly white and male.  Additionally, the special forces community comprises approximately three percent of the U.S. military and is also predominantly white and male.  For many Americans, service in the military is the most salient factor of patriotism and the significance of these numbers reifies American patriotism as a space that normalizes white ownership and subordinates the experiences of other racial and ethnic groups.  

The January 6th insurrectionists believed their patriotic duty was to overturn a duly elected government because it was inconceivable that their side could legitimately lose (an/that election).  Some analysts, such as Robert Pape and Keven Ruby, have surmised that events like the January 6th insurrection represent a new political force in American politics.  They argue incendiary and extremist language is incorporated within the conceptualization of patriotism; it moves that language into mainstream.  Normalizing violent language and language creates a broader support for civil war and secession and other extreme actions. As mentioned earlier, I have found multiple studies that conclude that white Americans who strongly identify as patriotic are more likely to subvert the constitutional rights of those they consider unpatriotic or un-American. Moreover, research shows biblical faith, religious denomination, age, and household income also factor into patriotic identity.  The point is that far-right extremists are easy to blame for some of the elements that animated January 6th,, but the truth is that the mob that charged the barricades at the U.S. Capitol last year were not all extremists on the political fringe.  Instead, they were otherwise mainstream individuals who became radicalized by social media rants and insidious political rhetoric. 

Race is a salient factor for many white Americans who strongly identify as patriotic, and race cannot be ignored as we analyze January 6th.  Anti-immigrant, anti-Asian and anti-Black animus all factored into legitimizing white supremacy under the banner of America First.  Historical context of the American patriot/anti-patriot dichotomy and the relationship with white supremacy helps to understand what animated January 6th, 2021, and why it is clear that we have not made much progress to prevent this from happening again.  White supremacy and the language of patriotism – like taking back “our” country – has been used before to incite insurrection against a duly elected government in America and to whitewash the historical record.

Patriotism’s Ghosts from the Past

Our nation’s history includes a successful insurrection against a legitimately elected government in Wilmington, North Carolina just before the turn into the twentieth century.  On November 10th, 1898, a mob of over a several hundred white men violently attacked the duly elected – and predominantly Black — government of Wilmington, killing up to 100 people. The insurrection included a plan to steal the election through use of intimidation and racialized propaganda; use of force to riot and stage a coup; and banishment of political opponents. But the most insidious part of the strategy executed by Democratic politicians Charles B. Aycock, Henry G. Conner, Robert B. Glenn, Claude Kitchin, Locke Craig, Cameron Morrison, George Roundtree, Francis D. Winston, and Josephus Daniels was their inclusion of an issue that cut across political lines: the ascendant political power of Blacks in coalition with moderate Republican whites.  White grievance was animated to save North Carolina from what they called “Negro domination” by using conservative newspapers owned by Daniels.  Right-wing paramilitary groups called Red Shirts intimidated Black and white political opponents, thereby creating momentum for white supporters seemingly legitimization of white grievances against the political and social changes ushered by the Reconstruction.  The parallel themes with the 1898 insurrection and the 2021 insurrection make clear that there is more to these events than just political mania.

One theme from the 1898 insurrection was white grievance born out of a perceived loss of political power as the foundation of a political platform to re-assert white supremacy in the name of the saving the country.  As I noted earlier, those who strongly identify as patriotic tend to support suppressing the constitutional rights of outside groups.  The suppression of constitutional rights, like the right to vote, through the threat or actual use of violence against political opponents and elected officials was normalized in 1898. It was also part of the 2021 insurrection.  White grievance is baked into the “Big Lie” – the mob that showed up on the U.S. Capitol last year believed the election was stolen from them because many mail-in votes were not counted until after election day.  That the modern Democratic party successfully used mail-in ballots to ensure that more people could exercise their right to vote across the nation – many of these voters being people of color and people who cannot take a day off to stand in line to vote – equalizes access to the right to vote.   To suppress or challenge mail-in balloting is to suppresses the voting rights of people of color and the poor.  Moreover, the Republican “Big Lie” has been the driving force to restrict access to voting in 19 states in 2021.

Another theme present in both 1898 and 2021 is the distinction between white and Black citizenship in America as it pertains to power.  The significance about race in America remains to be fully acknowledged notwithstanding recent steps towards so-called reckoning.  Through the lens of American patriotism, we can see how the shield f power and privilege enables alternate justice in this country.  In North Carolina in 1898, Aycock and his compatriots fomented anti-Black fears by talking about crime; they supported lynching of Black men accused of raping white women, for example.  The 2021 insurrection drew comparisons to the 2020 protests bringing attention to Black lives killed by contact with law enforcement.  Calling themselves patriots, the insurrectionists included anti-Black, anti-immigrant, white nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, Oath Keepers, and the Last Sons of Liberty.  However, what is true for both 1898 as well as 2021 is not the extremists acting on their beliefs. After the 1898 insurrection, Aycock served as Governor of North Carolina while Josephus Daniels served as Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson and Ambassador to Mexico under Franklin Roosevelt.  They were not held accountable.  One year later, we are still waiting to hold key players of the 2021 insurrection accountable for their actions in both the judicial and legislative systems.  

The 2021 insurrection does not represent a new political force as some analysts have surmised. As I have illustrated here, there is historical and cultural context for January 6th, and we have an opportunity now to dive more deeply into the dynamics of American patriotism, race, and political power that drove these insurrections.  I argue that until our society begins to address power, privilege, and race as seen through the lens of patriotism we cannot move forward.  American patriotism in its present form normalizes and centers a manner of thinking and a manner of analysis of cultural events that whitewashes history and reinforces cultural myths about power, privilege, and race in this country.  Far from saying patriotism is wrong, I believe we can remove it from its narrow and exclusive confines.

Published by: Bryon L. Garner

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Bryon L. Garner earned his Master of Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University and is currently pursuing his PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Union Institute & University. A 2020 Ril M. Beatty Fellowship recipient, Bryon has presented and written about intersectionality, masculinity and patriotic identity and is a contributing writer for Black & Magazine. Bryon is an honored awardee at the 2020 Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Program Annual Conference, where he presented, “Her Brave Black Soldiers: Black Veterans, Patriotism, and the Soldier-Athlete Archetype.” Bryon was the subject of a Christian Science Monitor article “On Independence Day, Black Americans see hope of a larger patriotism”

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