‘Whiteness Is Viewed As Friendly’

Berggruen Fellow Jonathan Blake explains how symbols uphold America’s ethnocracy

Amanda Taub

Why didn’t the police stop the attack on the Capitol last Wednesday?

The who, when and why are important, and still emerging. But there are also structural forces that set it in motion long before the events of last week. And the key to understanding those is to see the United States as an ethnocracy, a country in which institutions traditionally serve the interests of a politically dominant ethnic group, said Kate Cronin-Furman, a political scientist at University College London who studies ethnocracies and mass atrocities. (Other examples of ethnocratic states include apartheid South Africa, Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Burmese-majority Myanmar and Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka.)

American institutions, including law enforcement, have traditionally protected white people and served their interests, while viewing Black people and other minorities as potential threats. Although there has been some progress in recent decades, that has not been enough to erase centuries of institutional preferences and default assumptions.

“Whiteness is viewed as friendly, not just nonthreatening but friendly” by law enforcement, said Rashawn Ray, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. By contrast, groups that challenge the racialized status quo, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, are treated as inherently threatening. In June, Dr. Ray noted, the government deployed thousands of officers and used tear gas, helicopters and other tactics to subdue Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington. But last week, there was “a completely different response,” he said. “The message was: we’re not threatened by them.”

That fits a global pattern. “In ethnocracies, members of the majority partake in some of the legitimacy of the state’s use of violence,” Dr. Cronin-Furman said. When members of the majority make threats or provocations during rallies, they are rarely seen as genuine security issues. And when their demonstrations do erupt into violence, those attacks are often waved away as unforeseeable fringe events. Minority group gatherings, by contrast, tend to be presumed dangerous until proven otherwise.

In Sri Lanka, for instance, members of the Tamil minority are “construed as a potential insurgency” when they gather peacefully, Dr. Cronin-Furman said, but the Buddhist-majority government tolerates violent Buddhist extremists.

“We might think that things like parades and flags and symbols are weapons of the weak. But one thing I argue is that in divided societies these are actually weapons of the strong,” said Jonathan S. Blake, a political scientist at the Berggruen Institute who wrote a book about the sectarian parades in Northern Ireland that often sparked violence during the Troubles. “Because in divided societies you need, at the very least, the state turning a blind eye, or at the most actually protecting you.”

Which brings us back to the mob attack on the Capitol. The rioters seem to have assumed that the police would see them as allies. Many within the crowd carried “thin blue line” flags, symbolizing support of law enforcement. And troves of public planning posts on social media and cellphone videos shot by the rioters and shared online suggest that they did not expect to be investigated or prosecuted.

“They saw the police and the military as intrinsically tied to the nation-state, of which they think they are the sole heirs,” Dr. Ray said. And several off-duty police officers from around the country have been accused of participating in the riot.

But if that is the case, then police officers themselves paid a steep price for their leadership’s underestimation of the dangers. Rioters killed the Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick during the attack, and many other officers were seriously wounded.