'This Is America': A Conversation About The Capitol Riot And White Supremacy
Are Vermonters treating the Capitol riot as an act of white supremacy? And is there a shift from how this predominantly white state has handled structural racism in the past?
It's now been over a week since the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol carried out by pro-Trump extremists, most of whom were white. As we continue to process this event and the potential for further violence around the country in the coming days, we wanted to look at this moment through the lenses of race and history.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with public scholar, social justice educator and Hartford Select Board member Rachel Edens and Elise Guyette, a historian, educator and author based in South Burlington. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: Rachel, I want to start with you. Now that we're over a week out from this riot at the Capitol, how are you thinking about those events and what's unfolded since?
Rachel Edens: I think that looking back at it, and considering that it's only been a week, it feels like it's been so much longer, and also so much shorter at the same time. I think for me personally, knowing that the riots and the insurrection happened a week ago is almost difficult to put into context, because we've been seeing such blatant displays of white supremacy and violence.
Seeing it come to a head in a certain way last week for folks is honestly really difficult. And knowing that this is something that has been the kind of final straw that has brought a lot of people's attention to this, whereas I feel that BIPOC people, and Black people in particular, we have seen this and seen the violence behind kind of the niceties for a very long time.
So for me personally, as I process this, it's looking at the danger and the violence of white supremacy, as well as the danger in the violence of pretending and ignoring that these things don't exist with us here in Vermont.
Henry Epp: Elise, I want to turn to you to help us put this in some historical context. Vermont fought for the Union in the Civil War. And yet, as you've written, we've never been exempt from racism here in Vermont. Do you see this riot – and according to Seven Days, at least one Vermonter participated in it – do you see this as an extension of white supremacy culture in the United States?
Elise Guyette: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when you see the symbols that were at that insurrection, when you see nooses hanging, when you see Confederate flags flying, when you see sweatshirts that say things like “Camp Auschwitz,” I mean you this goes directly back to Nazism, which grew directly from the eugenics movement and the caste system in this country.
We fought wars against both of those movements, and yet you can still drive around Vermont and see Confederate flags flying. That Confederate flag was very carefully created during the Civil War to be, and I quote, “the white man's flag.” It was the flag saying that the white men are supreme, and we will fight for that under this banner, and this is what's still flying in many places in Vermont.
What is happening now is a direct descendant of racism, white supremacy and the failed reconstruction in our country. Not a failure on the part of Black leadership, but a failure on the part of all of our branches of government to protect the human rights of all human beings in this country. And we are seeing the Reconstruction playbook being played today.
Henry Epp: I want to look locally here. I mean, Vermont, as we've said, is a predominantly white state. This was a predominantly white crowd that stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn the election results. Rachel, in the conversations you're having right now, do you think that Vermonters, and particularly white Vermonters, are grappling with race and the role that race has played in the insurrection that we saw?
Rachel Edens: I do, Henry. But I think that what's important is to think about, grappling to what end? I think that, you know, when we think about grappling in the terms of kind of a joint consciousness, a lot of times we're thinking about how to move forward in a positive way. I think that some of what we've seen – and also in addition to what Elise just said about the signs and symbols that we see, such as the Confederate flag and its prominence here in many places in the state as we drive around – that many people have been grappling with what they feel is a loss of power, of white supremacy and a loss of dominance of white supremacy.
And so, yes, I feel that this riot and insurrection, all of the other movements and moments of violence that we've seen around this, do come from people trying to grapple with this and make sense of it, particularly the population of white Vermonters in the state who are afraid of losing what they perceive as the power of white supremacy in this country. And this is the very violent outgrowth of trying to maintain and hold on to that power.
"I'm seeing a lot of folks... thinking, 'Is this us? This isn't us, this isn't America. How could this happen?' And on the kind of the flip side of that, Black folks looking at that and being like, 'Of course, this is happening. Yes, this is real. Yes, this is America. Yes, this is everything that you and we are together.'" — Rachel Edens
So on the other end of the spectrum, with the conversations that I've been having with people, BIPOC folks and white folks alike, is trying to make sense of this on two different levels. One, I'm seeing a lot of folks in the state, who consider themselves to be liberal or progressive, just kind of looking at themselves and looking at the country and thinking, “Is this us? This isn't us, this isn't America. How could this happen?” And on the kind of the flip side of that, Black folks looking at that and being like, “Of course, this is happening. Yes, this is real. Yes, this is America. Yes, this is everything that you and we are together.”
So I have seen grappling on a number of different levels, but I feel like the dissonance that I'm seeing here is coming from a lot of different places and not necessarily a healthy one. To that end, I feel that what I just mentioned about white people in this state not being able to process that this is indeed what America is and what America has been founded upon, is difficult to see where that grappling goes.
I've seen it both ways. People wanting to move forward in a positive direction of equity and unity, and then others who have just been very stuck at that place of, “I can't believe that this is happening.”
Henry Epp: You brought something interesting up, Rachel, that the grappling often goes towards looking to resolve things in the future. And I wonder if, does that imply that in your view, that we need to look more at the past, and grapple with the past before we figure out the future?
Rachel Edens: Yes, I do. I think that that's a good way to put that. I think, you know, the importance of the work that Elise and others do as historians is helping us to understand how exactly we got to this place. I mean, today is, you know, tomorrow's yesterday. And so I think that it's important that we think about what happens every single day as a building block of our history.
We had chattel slavery in what would become the United States 157 years before 1776. And so before we even knew who we were, we knew who we were. You know, this is something very important. That is a part that is integral to the foundation of this country.
And so I do believe that many people overlook this, and they choose to hold onto an American mythology that, “This is all about democracy, this is all about freedom.” But when we talk about those things, we also have to recognize that at one point in this country, the Constitution considered me only to be a fraction of an individual. And so we do need to look at those things very closely and accept them, that this did not happen overnight. This is not just a product of this current administration. This is something that the United States has been grappling with for its entire existence.
Elise Guyette: Could I add on to that?
Henry Epp: Please, yes.
Elise Guyette: I mean, what Rachel is talking about is, the history of our country is really jagged. And what happens in this country is that every time there seems to be progress in the area of increased equality, increased human rights for people of color, there is a violent backlash. And we're seeing yet another one now.
But we can go back into the entirety of our history. During the Revolutionary era, this was a point of high hopes by people of color, that we're finally going to get rid of slavery now. And thousands and thousands of Black men fought in the Revolutionary War, because they believed what they were told, was that if the Americans won, they would get rid of slavery. They, of course, were sadly disheartened afterwards when that didn't happen, when we created the slaveholders’ constitution.
So every time there is increased hopes, there's a violent backlash. And I warned people after the election of Barack Obama. And when something of that nature happened, there was such high hopes, we had a Black man as a president, I knew there was going to become a day when there was a violent backlash.
We're going to climb ourselves out of this at some point, and there's going to be heightened hopes again. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We can never rest on our laurels, because this will come back again and again and again, until we somehow get it solved.
Rachel Edens: Henry, can I build on that just a moment, about what that Elise pointed out?
Henry Epp: Yes, please.
I think everything that you said, Elise, is absolutely correct. Just one point that I think that it's very interesting and important for all of us to remember: You know, Elise just mentioned that we will climb ourselves back out of this. And I think that for that particular statement, the operative word is “we.” Who is the “we” that will climb out of it? Who is the “us” that will feel those things?
Because even if and when, hopefully our country does come to a place of moving away from this outward violence, I feel that throughout the history of our country, Black people in particular have still been cast into that hole that we're talking about, that the experience and the equity that we should be having in this country that should be afforded to us, has not. And time and again, when this country has pulled itself together, and time and again when this country has felt that it's had things to be proud of, and things to be excited about, those are the moments that we really have to think about, what is happening to the Black people in our country.
I think even after the election of Barack Obama, that was a very exciting moment for many people. But I will tell you that, personally, from my experience as a Black woman and the Black folks that I was talking to, this came as no surprise. All of us knew that this was going to happen. All of us knew that there was going to be the backlash with which we all live every day, that something like this would happen. And for some of us, I think that it's just surprising that it took this long.
We've been seeing an increase in violence since the Obama administration. You've been seeing this moment foment as we look at it. And so it might feel different to white Americans. But I think what's very important is, how does it feel, how do we exist as Black Americans in that space? And are we doing this together?
Henry Epp: Elise, I want to quote one line from an article that you wrote in 2016, in an article about the Civil War and race and growing up white in Vermont. You said in that article that Vermont is small enough to “become an experimental state where we might eventually lead the nation in conquering systemic racism.” So that was in 2016. Four years later, I'm curious if you still believe that?
Elise Guyette: Sure, I still believe that. But we have to have the will. We really have to have the will, and we need to educate ourselves as to what the problems are and what the problems have always been. We have to admit to ourselves that there is a racist system in this state. If we can't admit that, we cannot begin to dismantle that system. And it has been here all along.
You know, I mean, within people's memories, we remember when Black people could not find a place to stay at a hotel, that there were neighborhoods around in Vermont and in Burlington where Black people were not allowed to buy homes by codicil. You know, it was in their deeds. I mean, these are things that we can remember if we were paying attention.
We know that our system was based on racism, and we have to admit it. And then we have to start dismantling it little by little, and getting rid of it. It takes a very strong will to do that, and it takes an educated populace that can say that they know their history, that they understand their history, and that they're willing to do something to dismantle this horrible system of inequality that we have.
"We know that our system was based on racism, and we have to admit it. And then we have to start dismantling it little by little, and getting rid of it." — Elise Guyette
Henry Epp: Rachel, I'm curious what you'd say to that line, that Vermont could lead the nation in conquering systemic racism?
Rachel Edens: I think that that is a possibility. And I think that, you know, the point that we are a small enough state is absolutely valid to that argument. I think that this is an instance where our brave little state is going to have to be a courageous little state, and not only look at the history of how systemic racism has played out in this country, but also what the benefits to white people have been. In addition to having the will to do this, we have to look at how people are benefiting, and how things will change, and what that might look like.
And also, you know, as we look at the far right and the rioters and insurrection, how they are perceiving things that are lost to them? I think it's very important that people recognize that there are reasons that white supremacy has persisted for so long. People do benefit from it. And so not only is it, do we want to change, it's how can we change, and why have we not changed? And also, who is going to be making those changes?
This is something that every individual in Vermont is going to have to commit to if we want to see our state actually change and be a leader. I think it's possible. I think it will be very difficult, and I think it will be more difficult than people think it will be, particularly looking at folks who identify as progressive and liberal white Vermonters.
This, I think, happening during the pandemic, one thing that's been very high on my mind is, what's it going to look like when we're all face to face? I think it's easy to practice these things and to believe in this while we're all in the comfort of our homes or a relatively removed social distance bubble. But when we're all living together the way that we were, you know, 18 months ago, how is that going to play out? Are Vermonters actually prepared with the education and the tools to be able to interrupt moments of bias in this state, in the places in which they live?
Each of us has a sphere of influence, and that is going to be where the real work gets done. The dirty work is not going to be on social media. The dirty work is not going to be virtue-signaling, the dirty work is not going to be all the books on your bookshelf from the many book clubs that have popped up during this time. The real dirty work is going to be going through our lives every day to our friends, to our neighbors, to our places of business, interrupting those moments of bias, looking at how we can decolonize, looking at how we can center BIPOC voices. And those are the real pieces that will make Vermont a leader in this country.
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