Once there, I scanned the faces by the Ellipse; the anger and zeal in the face of a man dragging a small child behind him caught my eye. The grim determination on his face reminded me of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo “The Soiling of Old Glory.” In it, a White man is poised to drive the pole of an American flag into the midsection of a Black civil rights lawyer held fast by another White man. The photo is from the year of our nation’s bicentennial, and technically the unrest it depicts was over busing. But really, it was over democracy: who is part of it; who is excluded; and who gets to tell its story.
When I think of the many children at the rally, I think of photos from earlier eras where lynching was a family-friendly event and watching a man or woman burn was cause for a picnic. Today, we may be watching democracy burn instead.
I’ve been saying that publicly for the past two years, and it seemed at first that many people seemed to think I was way off base. Field reporting and social science research led me to understand the level of threat, something that now, as we mark the anniversary of the violence at the US Capitol, more and more Americans are starting to grasp — even as a recalcitrant cohort attempt to ignore or deny it. Here are a few thoughts on what we missed, and three ways that those of us who work in journalism, data gathering and civil society can deepen the ways we understand and tell the story of this nation.
First, think of active extremists as fellow Americans, because that’s who they are. I treat them with the same approach to fact-finding and deep listening that I give any other interview subject. I had a moment early in my career where I interviewed a woman from the Aryan Nation by phone, and she said, “For every 10 people who read your article, one of them will follow me.” I didn’t take her words at face value, but they both scared and intrigued me.
When journalism and civic discourse treat extremists as an other, large swaths of society fail to comprehend their ubiquity — or their connections to fundamental issues and institutions. America has been so eager to consider itself “post-racial” that we papered over the growing antipathy to multiracial democracy, saying it “wasn’t the America we knew.” Such attempts to explain away racial animus emboldened extremists and led us to where we are today.
But the connections are there, and we have to face them. For example, I have looked at the ways that organized extremist movements sought to foster people who were also displaced by crises of mental health and over labor, particularly in regions where blue collar White Democrats had once been well paid. I corresponded with one White nationalist for more than a year over Twitter DMs. I learned a lot, including that like so many of us he’d dealt with depression and alienation.
I talked to military members and veterans, mainly off the record and frankly. My own family’s record of service goes back generations, to the Civil War. My cousin, who is a mixed-race man who people “read” as White, told me about the unfiltered commentary he heard from White troop members about race and politics. A Black veteran described serving with men with strange square black tattoos, which he found out were inked-in swastikas, and learning to forge a working relationship with them anyway.
I noted the rise of White supremacy within the ranks of troops and officers. I talked to Chris Jones of the award-winning outlet “100 Days in Appalachia” about how extremist movements foreground veterans to attract other members. (He is a veteran himself.)
Second, we need better data that goes further than traditional political polling in getting to the root causes behind citizens’ actions. A great example is “Understanding the 2020 Election, the Electorate, and the Trump Years,” by the firm PerryUndem from April 2021. In it, pollster Tresa Undem included a cluster of questions collectively measuring “perceived threat to white male cultural and political dominance.” Among White male voters, this index explained voter choice almost as much as party ID, and with more nuance. But almost no one wrote about the poll, although other surveys by the firm have made headlines. I suspect that the findings were considered impolite and alienating to the perceived neutrality of journalism. You know what: Sometimes reality is impolite. A survey like this, which also oversampled for voters of color, is far more contextually useful than quick (and increasingly inaccurate) predictive election polls.
I believe there are better options. At the radio show I host, “Our Body Politic,” we have a partnership with the Gen Forward Survey of the National Opinion Research Center. Data scientists Jenn Jackson and Diane Wong take a community-informed approach to data so they ask deeper intersectional questions. For example, a recent survey found that Black women and Latinas were delaying life events like marriage, home buying and having children due to college debt.
That data provides information on understanding the issue of the racial wealth gap, how it affects intergenerational wealth, and the fiscal cracks in the American Dream. I plan to do more research this year in partnership with different data scientists and pollsters to not only learn how to tell the story of America better and more accurately, but also what demographic and psychographic factors affect our preference for and ability to champion pluralistic multiracial democracy.
Third, if it hasn’t become clear yet, we need to be prepared to live in psychic discomfort over the state of American democracy, and do so indefinitely. Just as we are learning to adapt to the pandemic, to the fatiguing array of choices we face under pain of death or illness, we can learn to adapt to an America where we have to face threats to democracy head on. And here, really, is where we have the chance to grow as a nation. Many of us, myself included, have not led lives where phrases like “this isn’t the America I know” came to mind on January 6. Quite the opposite.
It’s hard to grow up Black in America and not see threats to democracy, because we have to face them at younger ages and more consistently than many White Americans do. I love this country, but whatever bubble of thought that I had that it would protect my interests without fail burst long ago, in childhood. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I find it easier to talk to White Americans who grew up poor or working-income, particularly outside of major cities, about the challenge facing democracy than people who grew up more financially privileged. We can begin to recognize that some among us — from many backgrounds — have more familiarity with the failings of American democracy than others, and recognize that not as bias but as expertise. We will need our collective civic competency to navigate this moment in history.
That’s one reason the photograph “The Soiling of Old Glory” sticks with me. It shows us an America we don’t generally want to see, in the service of helping us create something better. I personally remember that bicentennial year of 1976, when I was in first grade, and watching my mother hoist the flag above our house in Baltimore. I hope America reaches its next centennial, and does so with reasons to celebrate. Whether it does or not is up to us.