Uprooting White Supremacy Is the Only Way Forward

To deny the role that white supremacy played in the January 6 attack on the Capitol is to ignore its true origins—and to endanger our shared, livable future.

Pro-Trump rioters face off with Capitol police—receiving virtually no pushback—inside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. One rioter wears a shirt depicting a “Q” and the words “Trust the Plan,” representing conspiracy group

Win McNamee/Getty Images

As the dust settles after the attack on our democracy on January 6, 2021, I am beginning to fully process the ugly truth behind the violence: White supremacy was at the root of this attack and all movements that work to improve society—including the climate movement—must root it out to move forward.

People of color in the United States, their allies, and advocates have seen this coming for years: White supremacy and white rage reared its ugly head throughout the Trump presidency because he and his enablers allowed and encouraged it—from the Muslim travel ban to the racist and violent rally in Charlottesville to the migrant children in cages.

When it became clear that a fair election would not preserve power for the incumbent and therefore his predominantly white supporters, the mob set out to wrest that power violently. That is white supremacy, pure and simple.

It is starkly clear to me, as someone who directs the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts for an environmental organization, that it is our urgent imperative now to reject white supremacy unreservedly.

Pro-Trump protesters wave banners—including a Confederate battle flag and a flag depicting the “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan, which has come to be associated with various anti-government advocates in recent years—at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021.

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

On January 6, we all witnessed what happens when white supremacy is left unchecked and allowed to reach its boiling point. People of color, especially Black people, know that if we had made it anywhere near the Capitol grounds to gather peacefully to stand up for Black lives, as many did this summer, we would have been declared a threat immediately rather than be allowed to deface the seat of democracy. And that is the night-and-day difference: These people were not exercising free speech or their right to protest yet they were met with relatively little obstruction or armed harassment.

That day, white supremacy was on plain display: a Confederate flag was paraded in the halls of the Capitol for the first time ever; a noose was flaunted on its grounds, a clear allusion to the national shame of lynchings; and sweatshirts were worn with slogans like “Camp Auschwitz.”

And even in the aftermath, white supremacy continues unabated, from members of Congress who voted to overturn the election results and those who voted “no” on impeachment for the president who incited this violence to those who booed Representative Cori Bush when she condemned white supremacy on the floor of Congress. 

This work is one of NRDC’s top priorities: to confront white supremacy head-on, acknowledge and check our implicit biases, and move toward equity and inclusion for a diverse staff—not just to treat these terms like buzzwords, but to truly embody these ideals in what we do and how we work. We must do the tough work of re-examining ourselves so that we may move toward a more just, equitable, and multiracial society. And we must do so continually, and be unflagging in this task.

It’s called anti-racism, and without doing this hard work, we will see more of what we saw on January 6 but even uglier and more harrowing, more chilling, in the face of the climate crisis. We will see the same people trying to wrest power and resources—land, water, food—for themselves while pushing others who are not like them to the margins. This was already there, the ugly fingerprints of eco-fascism, at the Capitol. Yes, this is a warning.

It is all of our jobs to undo the harms of white supremacy, but the bulk of the burden must be shouldered by white people who hold that privilege. Only when progress is made on that work can we make good on the multiracial, democratic future we all deserve. Only then can we keep building on the work of NRDC, which rests solidly on the democratic norms that we as a country have taken for granted.

We are not going to let white supremacy reign. I refuse. This week, as I reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, I am replacing my mental images of the marauding extremists in the Capitol halls with images of Black National Guardsmen posing with a statue of Rosa Parks. That is the energy, the determination, we need to channel as we move forward. I believe it’s still there. Our work, our democracy, our existence are all on the line. Let’s go.

About the Authors

Troy Riddle

Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer

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