The Capitol grounds are usually pastoral. Before the pandemic sent everyone home and started a recession, on a nice day you could see bureaucrats, office drones, journalists, students, and tour groups relaxing on the benches and parks scattered around Capitol Hill. If the National Mall is colloquially known as America’s front yard, then the Capitol Building is America’s house. That is why, for longtime DC residents like myself, the grotesque imagery from the Capitol last week cut to the marrow.
As Proud Boys and MAGA losers stormed the Capitol grounds and breached its doors, it felt like a personal invasion, like my home was broken into and defiled. Now that hundreds of soldiers stand at attention outside the building, this abundance of security is both necessary and dispiriting. All that has happened – the rally that turned into a riot, the lives lost, the widespread cognitive dissonance from the perpetrators – is not about the twice-impeached president, or even the bullshit of a “stolen” election. It is about whiteness.
Whiteness is more than a race or pigment. It is more than white supremacy, and its adjacent acts of terror. Whiteness is pervasive social order, one that rioters and countless other Americans need because that is the only way they can find self-worth. Whiteness is the status quo, but it is more than the status quo: it is a set of psychological principles so deep that its loyal adherents will act against their own self-interest, break the law, and become violent. When a police officer was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher on January 6, it was not because the perpetrators never cared about “Blue Lives Matter.” They just care about whiteness more.
In Boston review last October, the psychiatrist and “Dying of Whiteness” author Jonathon Metzl wrote about this phenomenon in detail:
White anxiety is a problem, not just of individual minds or attitudes, but of larger social and socioeconomic structures. Like many chronic illnesses where profit emerges from the ways that expensive treatments alleviate symptoms but rarely offer cures, white anxiety is also framed, manipulated, and sustained by these larger structural forces for specific political and financial purposes.
While insightful and eloquent, Metzl’s words offered no comfort over the last week. No conversation, condemnation, speech, dank meme, or therapy session could stir me from my horror. When clarity did come, it felt like a bracing shower, not a soothing balm. It was only through two new films, MLK/FBI and One Night in Miami, that I found the context that transform into endurance and resolve. These films were meant to coincide with the MLK holiday on January 18 (they are available to stream today), yet fate would entreat these films with a more somber purpose. As they put mid-century black leaders into a more human context, giving them dimension and faults, these two films unintentionally help us understand last week’s attack.
Historical Washington imagery is key to the documentary MLK/FBI. The most recognized moment in King’s life happened across the Mall from where, last week, a riot occurred. The film’s second subject, the FBI, represents another Washington, a Washington where J. Edgar Hoover and his straight-laced G-men enforced the white order. In formal terms, director Sam Pollard follows the technique of classic documentaries. He weaves archival footage and talking heads to show the seedy relationship between the slain civil rights leader, and the authorities who were spying on him. But that familiar structure allows the introduction of powerful ideas.
At first, the FBI spied on King because of his association with former communists. They accidentally uncovered a salacious personal life – yes, King had extramarital affairs – then the scope of the surveillance changes. Rather than focus on the communist angle, the FBI recorded material that could embarrass or humiliate King. This shift represents the depth of our nation’s whiteness. King was not just a civil rights leader; he was also a threat to the Establishment, and the powerful were happy to play along until he started to question the Vietnam War. Pollard and his interviewees imply that King’s speeches about Vietnam and poverty, not civil rights, are when he became a real threat. The film ends at that infamous Memphis hotel, with historians openly wondering why there was no law enforcement interference in King’s assassination.
It is no coincidence that Regina King, director of One Night in Miami, also centers the film on a motel. This time, however, the Nation of Islam is there to protect Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) as he celebrates Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) defeating Sonny Liston. The singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) are also on hand for the party. Rather than a huge event, Malcolm opts for a smaller affair – in one room, mostly – where the men can talk about the nature of race and what they owe their community.
One Night in Miami is set in February 1964, a period when these leaders have not realized the breadth of the power. They see possibility in their futures – the film implies, for example, Cooke could have become an instrument of change like Bob Dylan – but none of these men can imagine what they will ultimately represent to white America (two days before his eventual death, Malcolm said he will be a martyr). Regina King is an empathetic director, shooting the arguments like an action sequence, and so each rhetorical blow lands harder. These figures were men before they were icons, and the script by Kemp Powers emphasizes that we cannot see their courage until we first understand what motivates them. Both this film and MLK/FBI caution us about lionizing fallen leaders. To celebrate someone as a hero is to deny the specifics of their history, including their enemies.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on January 6, many observers (correctly) noted the difference between what happened in the Capitol and what happened in the wake of George Floyd’s death. MSNBC’s Joy Reid, for example, captured this anger with aching poignancy. Now that our terror is less immediate, it is easier to look at January 6 in a wider breadth of history. This riot was a partial response (albeit a pathetic one) to King’s movement. King adapted non-violence as a tactical strategy, not a moral stance, because anything else would have led to his followers being cut down in the street, while last week’s rioters felt they could act with impunity. These disparate groups are separated by time, race, ideology, and so much more. The only thing they share is an intuitive understanding of whiteness: who marches on the Capitol grounds, and how they do it, are how we keep score in the battle for our country’s future. No matter what happens in our backyard in the days ahead, we will have a clearer sense of who is winning.