by Glenn Nelson
Content Warning: This article contains strong language.
A few decades back, I was in the heart of Mitch McConnell country — aka Kentucky. Being a longtime basketball writer, I was fascinated with that region’s love affair with the sport. Everyone in that particular, depressed coal-mining region was white and seemed to have a hoop, built mostly on dirt patches.
My hoops background was urban, so very concrete. Seeing a wooden backboard, set on a wooden plank, stuck in a clutch of dried mud in Middle-of-Nowhere, USA, was a wonder. I got out of my car for a closer look.
Some movement in the corner of my eye made me spin toward an adjoining shotgun shack — to spy a literal shotgun pointed at me.
I can’t remember being more scared — that is, until I was in Moscow almost a decade later. Again, hoops was involved. I’d been on the road for weeks, basketball jonesing big time, when I heard the telltale sound of a bouncing ball. I followed the tantalizing thuds to a tall chain-link fence where I stopped to watch — until the barrel of a rifle extended through the fence and a Soviet soldier waved me off.
Until yesterday, I’d never linked the two unsettling experiences. After yesterday, it will be difficult to uncouple the memory of a naked display of power by an angry white Southerner from a similar exhibition in a totalitarian state. Yesterday in the nation’s capital was like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of horrific personal experiences — two different nightmares combined into one tasty vision of a hell that I think awaits us.
If you are a BIPOC individual, you likely viewed the shocking developments in Washington, D.C., far differently than white Americans, even our allies and the most left of the leftists. Those people saw the United States acting “like a banana republic” or one of Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” from which many of us can trace our lineages.
I don’t know about you, but yesterday looked like the first, unnerving jolts of white supremacist rigor mortis. The demographics of this country may be changing quickly — as evidenced by the Stacey Abrams-fueled dual miracles in Georgia — but the shift in power dynamics is not keeping up. Yesterday sure looked like the first real battle of a race war that has been simmering in this country for decades — and the insurrection has the resources, motivation, and the cover to wipe us out like the 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.
And, like that day in Kentucky and that day in what Ronald Reagan called the “Evil Empire,” it scares the crap out of me. Trump told his people, “We will never give up, we will never concede,” as they chanted, “Fight for Trump, fight for Trump …” It was a signaling of intention — and not just for the day.
Just consider the scene: An angry, armed mob, prodded into action by the grand wizard occupying the White House. Now change the setting to Watts or Newark or Selma, the race of that mob from white, and its leadership to the Black Panthers or Black Lives Matter. Then tell me that protestors would advance within sniper’s range of the halls of Congress and we’d leave the day with only one person shot and killed, much less moments of police complicity to the point of taking selfies with outlaws.
Because the longer your memory stretches, the more you have seen this is true. Because Emmett Till. Because Rodney King. Because George Floyd. Because Medger Evers and Sitting Bull and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Because Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Wounded Knee and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Because David Duke and Bull Connor and Donald Trump.
Because white people have watched the streets “burn, baby, burn” and seen “animals” destroying our own habitats. Because BIPOC people have watched white mobs do Tulsa. Because white America has more experience than any country in history in not only suppressing and oppressing an Indigenous population but also eradicating and marginalizing other non-white peoples.
Yes, I blame white America for yesterday’s chaos. But I don’t mean only the out and out racists. I’ve heard their pain, clearly. I once was directed at a city hall in McConnell’s Kentucky to “N—-r Town” like I was being sent to Rite Aid. I’ve spent plenty of time in Senator-elect Raphael Warnock’s Georgia, in places where I heard the N-word uttered more times than at a Def Comedy Jam, as casually from white lips as whistling Dixie. That deep, down hatred I understand. Centuries of dehumanization to rationalize America’s original sin and ongoing white dominion has a way of cementing expectations and adhering to generations. In the America that is not the 1 Percent, things feel more zero sum, and allowing non-whites to get even a little something — something feels like line cutting.
It’s the white Americans who didn’t do enough to break the cycle of racism that I blame. Even — or especially — liberals. Special ire is due the Republicans who thought they were only going along for their tax breaks and convinced themselves that empowering and enabling a racist did not make them racist by extension. After four years of proving otherwise, “no one’s actually gone that far” no longer holds up as an alibi. Those members of he-fooled-me-twice America now have the blood of disproportionate, non-white COVID-19 deaths on their grubby, ivory hands.
There are so many images from yesterday that I will not soon forget. The noose swinging from a makeshift gallows on the National Mall. The video of our representative, Pramila Jayapal, and other Congresspersons of color ducking and reaching for gas masks as shots rang out in the Capitol Building. That look of unadulterated hatred on the faces of Trump’s “very special” people, that you’re-not-stealing-nothing-from-me kind of hatred. You don’t get that look from us, because most of us were stripped clean many life cycles ago.
These will be scenes reprised at the Joe Biden inauguration, if not sooner, in front of every courthouse where post-presidential Trump is charged, at every Donald-in-2024 MAGA rally, until the final death rattle of white supremacist America. That’s why yesterday felt like the third time I’ve had a firearm waved at me — but the first time the hammer actually was cocked. It wasn’t just a warning; it was a declaration.
Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American journalist who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race.