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Leonard Pitts column: Another word for anxiety is fear
Capitol rioters

Leonard Pitts column: Another word for anxiety is fear

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On Jan. 6, rioters supporting President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, the first assault on the seat of government since the War of 1812.

Apparently, Robert Pape was surprised.

Notwithstanding earlier research or the alarm raised in this and other forums, Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, expected, when he began studying the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, to find the rioters acted out of economic anxiety.

His anticipation, he recently told The New York Times, was that as he delved into the demographics of 377 people who had been arrested or charged, he would quantify the riot as an aftershock of the 2008 recession.

It didn’t turn out that way.

In his initial findings, detailed in an op-ed for The Washington Post, Pape determined the rioters to be 95% white, 85% male, middle and upper middle class, and — significantly — to hail mostly from counties where the white population is shrinking fastest and the nonwhite most aggressively growing.

Such counties were six times more likely to produce rioters than counties where demographic change was least dramatic, a disparity that held even when controlled for various variables.

Coincidence? Pape says the chances are less than one in a thousand. So assuming his findings hold, we might conclude that, while there was anxiety here, economics had nothing to do with it. This anxiety was racial.

And another word for anxiety is fear.

We seldom discuss the degree to which that primal emotion has driven U.S. history where race and tribe are concerned. And yet, it always has been there.

It ripped the Choctaw, the Cherokee and the Creeks from their ancestral lands. It awakened Jefferson “like a firebell in the night.” It forced George, Noriyuki and Norman out of their homes and into camps ringed by barbed wire. It got Emmett maimed, Sam skinned and Mary hanged upside down and set afire.

Yes, ignorance has its role in all of that. As does greed, as does hatred. But let’s not overlook fear. Fear of pure blood, tainted. Fear of attack. Fear of replacement. And fear of reprisal, fear that, given power, the “minority” will treat the majority as the majority has treated it.

This fear only has grown more acute since we learned that these are the last days of that majority, that soon, no racial group will be able to claim numerical dominance.

Some white people find it frightening to envision a nation without white people calling all the shots. And bad things tend to happen when white people — particularly white men — get scared. Hence, the tea party and the birthers. Hence, Pittsburgh, Charlottesville and Charleston. Hence, the spike in voter suppression. Hence Donald Trump.

And, hence a mob of mostly white, mostly men, smashing through the sacred space of the U.S. Capitol. Economic anxiety? Who’s more economically anxious than Black and brown people? And how many Capitols have they breached?

To answer that question is to understand why there is something vaguely insulting in Pape’s surprise. History tells us what’s happening here. Previous studies have quantified what’s happening here. Some of us have spent years declaiming what’s happening here.

So how is it a learned man is surprised by what’s happening here?

A disruptive demographic change is upon us. It represents a challenge, yes, but also an opportunity. To meet the one and seize the other will require a clear-eyed view of what we are and some strategy that delivers us to what we ought to be.

The particulars of that are beyond the scope of this column, but there’s one thing we must do at a minimum. When frightened white people act out?

Stop being surprised.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Contact him at:

© 2021, Miami Herald.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

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