“This is not America.” Actually, it is.


Photo Illustration by Mira Nalbandian

The idea that the insurrection at the Capitol Jan. 6 is “un-American” ignores history.

By Ulaa Kuziez and Mira Nalbandian

From the establishment of the U.S. via Indigenous genocide to overthrowing governments domestically and abroad, the recent violence we saw at the Capitol is as American as pie. It was a frightening event. Yet to many who have studied the history and foundation of this country or experienced its violence first-hand, it was unsurprising. Americans’ collective amnesia about its past, coupled with its excessive nationalism, leads many to think of instances like this as a one-time tragedy. It’s time to debunk the myth of American exceptionalism.

Because Americans think the U.S. is superior to other countries, that our democracy is perfect, many have a hard time processing the unrest at the Capitol. Some have even gone to compare the recent disruption to countries they view as below us, when this violence is embedded in our history.

While the riots at the Capitol building were a more flagrant example of white supremacist violence, the U.S. government commits more subtle acts every day via the unjust policies it forces upon its citizens. From enslavement that persists to this day through prison labor, to law upon law restricting voting rights to ridiculously low tax rates for the wealthy and corporations, America has really never been a land of freedom and justice for all. Despite this, the idea of American exceptionalism lives on, and we believe that our country is safe from such dangerous events.

To construe white supremacists storming the Capitol building as “un-American” only upholds the false connotation that America is in fact just. We are constantly fed rhetoric from both parties about American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States is a force of good for the world and an arbiter of justice domestically and internationally. This myth leads to the perception that the insurrection at the Capitol only happens in other countries, far away from our ivory tower. Well, America, it did happen here. Countless times.

The white rage that fueled the violence against Indigenous and Black people throughout American history is the same white rage that fueled the attack at the Capitol. This is because white supremacist violence is foundational to this country. Think of the 1919 Red Summer, for example, when white supremacists incited deadly riots against Black people in over two dozen cities. Or the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 when a white mob killed nearly 300 people and burned to the ground the thriving Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street. Even more similar to the Capitol events, in 1898 during the post-Reconstruction Era, a mob overthrew the local biracial elected government in Wilmington, N.C. and replaced it with white supremacists. These are just a few examples of white mob violence in America, but they illustrate that violent white rage is not uncommon in this country. In fact, it is what we are built on.

The white rage that fueled the violence against Black people throughout American history is the same white rage that fueled the attack at the Capitol.”

However, this violence is not confined within the U.S. border. America has also been organizing and bankrolling coups across the globe to uproot any governments or groups that do not serve our government’s own political interests. From 1800 to today, the U.S. has violently intervened in foreign governments 392 times. Read that again. 392 times. In Guatemala, for example, the CIA sponsored a coup and overthrew democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz. This directly initiated nearly 40 years of brutal U.S.-backed regimes who committed mass executions and torture. Why did the U.S. do this? Because Arbenz nationalized the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, which threatened the profits of U.S. capitalists. The U.S. also worried that Arbenz’s radical ideas would spread to other Latin American countries.

Latin America, however, is not the only region that the U.S. infiltrated. From Vietnam and the Philippines to Iran and Syria, U.S. imperialism has brought gruesome destabilization and violence to all corners of the globe, with the sole purpose of protecting its economic hegemony.

Despite these horrific events, Americans are still led to believe a hopeful wish about their country’s existence as a shining beacon of hope to the world, where hoards of desperate “third-world” countries can only dream about emulating us. But decades of interventionism in other countries’ democracies show that these American ideals are simply ideals because, in reality, the U.S. has a dark history. This myth of American exceptionalism, and our perpetuation of it, only serves to protect and embolden white supremacy, empire and capitalism.

So when we hear leaders and ordinary citizens renouncing the Capitol riot as something only possible in other, so-called “more unstable” countries, it is the equivalent of slacktivists thinking they’ve solved oppression by pointing out that an individual conservative is racist. This line of thinking shifts blame away from ourselves and our country and onto the few who actually took part in the attack. Pacifying the masses against taking action only serves to uphold the harmful status quo. Yes, these individual white supremacists are at fault, but that doesn’t mean America as a whole isn’t, or that every white person who wasn’t involved is immediately off the hook.

If America refuses to face its long history of white supremacy, then events like this will continue to occur unabashedly. Learning the truth about our country’s violent past and connecting it to its present is a necessary step we all must take. The United States is no castle on a hill and it does not truly care about democracy, as many politicians will lead you to believe. When we admit that America enacts violence toward marginalized groups domestically and abroad, breeds white supremacy and is an imperialist power, then maybe we can start working to truly rectify our past, return the land to its rightful caretakers, abolish all the oppressive systems that hold us back and envision a more just, brighter future.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on January 13, 2021.