Commentary: Reflections on Jan. 6

By Jim Cossler

America’s Enduring Caste System is the title of an incredibly thought provoking commentary published in the New York Times Magazine this past summer. It was written by the absolutely brilliant author Isabel Wilkerson, the first woman of color to receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Her most recent book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is currently sixth on the New York Times best seller list. 

I hope this short excerpt from her commentary will be cause for some of you to search for it, or read her more expansive book. Wilkerson writes:

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched, but deeper ruptures waved away for decades, even centuries. Many people may rightly say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the foundation. We are heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.  

When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, and learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live through it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over generations, we learn to believe the incomprehensible is the way life is supposed to be. 

I thought about Isabel Wilkerson’s America as I watched in horror the events unfold on Jan. 6.

Thousands of mostly angry white men and women stormed our U.S. Capitol. They erected a gallows with a hangman’s noose on its hallowed steps. They violently assaulted our law enforcement officers, killing one of them. And I am absolutely certain some among them were intent on executing our democratically and fairly elected representatives if they could have reached them.

Yet, the most common response I heard from people concerning the events of that day was: “This isn’t us. This isn’t America.” But, that kind of response is the equivalency of putting a bucket under a wet ceiling, propping up a groaning floor, or stepping over the rotting wood tread on the stairwell. Because it really is us. It really is America. We all saw it with our own eyes.

Unquestionably, there are individuals who incited the Jan. 6 riot. But, those same individuals were not the root cause of it. And, to be clear, the riot wasn’t caused by what we typically call politics. The riot wasn’t caused by arguments over our tax system, environmental rules, business regulations, foreign policy, or military, education, social services, and health care funding.

Certainly not all, but, the vast majority of angry white men and women who stormed the Capitol, did it for a single reason. Their fear of losing the white supremacy and privilege they have enjoyed for generations.

And while almost none of these rioters will admit, let alone understand, that to be the real cause, there is simply is too much evidence to point elsewhere.

This wasn’t a political riot. It was a cultural riot of entitlement. And we need to have the courage to face it down and address it full on. Because if we don’t, Jan. 6 will look like a picnic in the park compared to what will come.

And the unacceptable, the incomprehensible, and the unthinkable, as Wilkerson writes, will become our new normal in this “old house” we call America.