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The unspoken role of race in the Jan. 6 riot


The January 6 committee hearings painted an elaborate and often damning portrait of former President Donald Trump's role in the insurrection. But race is also playing a central, if sometimes unspoken, role. NPR's Sandhya Dirks has more.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: There's this striking moment back at the very beginning of the hearings in Senator Bennie Thompson's opening statement.


BENNIE THOMPSON: I'm from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, Klu Klux Klan and lynching. And reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021.

DIRKS: Thompson draws a direct line from the lost cause to the big lie. Hakeem Jefferson, a political scientist at Stanford, says Thompson's very presence as an elder Black Southern man at the helm of the hearings holds meaning.

HAKEEM JEFFERSON: To see someone who looks like Bennie Thompson wield this amount of institutional power against a person like Donald Trump, who is awash in the markings of whiteness and privilege and all that it affords.

DIRKS: Whiteness, Jefferson says, is at the center of the events this hearing is interrogating.

JEFFERSON: January 6 was a racial backlash.

DIRKS: More precisely, he says, it's part of an ongoing white backlash against the very perception of racial progress.

JEFFERSON: Some white people are really concerned about a loss of power and status in American society.

DIRKS: At the heart of January 6, Jefferson says, is a story about power - white power.

JEFFERSON: It's not about power that's maintained by burning crosses. It's about the power that's maintained about telling some stories and not some others in schools. It's about the power to elect people who you think will do your bidding.

DIRKS: Over on Fox News, hosts like Tucker Carlson, who has peddled almost every conspiracy and lie about January 6, have consistently said that race or racism has nothing to do with it. Here he is in June, after falsely implying that the election could very well have been stolen.


TUCKER CARLSON: A lot of the protesters on January 6 were very upset about that. And they should have been. All of us should be. But the January 6 committee ignored all of that completely. Instead, on the basis of zero evidence - no evidence whatsoever - they blame the entire riot on white supremacy.

DIRKS: Of course, the January 6 committee hasn't really done that. The hearings haven't mentioned race much. And it is a central part of their case that rioters showed up precisely because they believed Trump's lie about a stolen election. But who believed that lie and why they believed it has everything to do with race, says Robert Pape, director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

ROBERT PAPE: What we're really observing are the consequences of the fear of white status decline.

DIRKS: Pape has been researching those who were arrested for storming the Capitol. He says they don't fit the old profiles of extremism.

PAPE: The counties that lost the most non-Hispanic white population are the counties that produced the most January 6 insurrectionists.

DIRKS: Most are white and male, but more than half are white-collar - doctors, lawyers. And they come from cities and suburbs, many from places Biden won. Pape says his research shows that a driving force among insurrectionists and those that support them is a fear of a white majority becoming a minority and having to give up power.

PAPE: These are the parts of the country where diversity is happening the fastest. This is dovetailing with rhetoric by politicians and by media figures, stoking fear about the great replacement.

DIRKS: To put it simply, they came from places that used to be almost all white and aren't anymore.

PAPE: Nearly 90% are not members of these militant extremist groups.

DIRKS: That's the racist conspiracy theory that Black and brown people are replacing white people as part of a nefarious Democratic plan to take power and steal elections, a theory peddled by people like Tucker Carlson. And it's believed not just by many of the people who stormed the Capitol but by the vast majority of Republicans. Here's political scientist Hakeem Jefferson again.

JEFFERSON: What's dangerous is when a group like this begins to adopt the mindset, or the rhetoric, of an oppressed minority.

DIRKS: Dangerous because, Jefferson says, when members of a group that still holds very real privilege, like white people, imagine themselves on the margins, that's when violent white nationalism takes hold. The narrative the January 6 committee has presented for the most part has been told in the voices of Republicans and former Trump loyalists. There was one notable exception - Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss.


SHAYE MOSS: I've always been told by my grandmother how important it is to vote and how people before me, a lot of people, older people in my family did not have that right.

DIRKS: Moss and her mom are both poll workers who Trump attacked by name, leading to death threats and racist attacks. Political scientist Akeem Jefferson says what these two women represent is not a political party or person in power but the right of average people to vote, a right that for many was only achieved within recent memory.

JEFFERSON: So many Black people and Black women in particular work on these front lines of democracy.

DIRKS: Jefferson says our fragile and incomplete multiracial democracy is in peril. It's not just January 6. It's also a slow-moving threat from the right, the Supreme Court, gerrymandering, voter suppression laws like some of the ones now on the books in Georgia overseen by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He was lauded at the hearings for standing up for democracy and against Trump. But back home, the laws he's championed have made it harder for people of color to vote.

JEFFERSON: January 6 was a racial project, but the everyday undoings and attacks on American democracy are also a part of a racial project. So yeah, it's the elephant in the room, but it's the whole damn room. This is all about race, all the time.

DIRKS: It continues a larger, longer battle that has never really ended over whose votes get counted and whose votes get to count.

I'm Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KILLER MIKE SONG, "RUN FEAT. YOUNG THUG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.