Who Has to Clean Up White Supremacy's Mess?

In the face of racist violence, Black people, low-income folks, and incarcerated workers have long been forced to literally pick up the pieces. This week is no different.
Who Has to Clean Up White Supremacy's Mess?
Photon by Bloomberg via Getty Images

On January 6, white nationalists occupied the Capitol for several hours, waving the Confederate flag as they broke windows, stole from Congresspeople’s offices, and destroyed government property. Later that evening, after D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser set a 6 p.m. curfew, Congress resumed its session, effectively returning to business as usual. “My colleagues,” said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, “it’s time to move on.”


But not everybody can just move on. The COVID-19 pandemic was already disproportionately affecting Black and low-income people, who are on average more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, lack proper health care, or face medical racism. White supremacy, on top of the virus, has put Black folks in even more danger. The riot, like other events held or attended by white supremacists despite the pandemic, put Black people, low-income folks, and incarcerated workers—populations that were already most vulnerable to COVID-19—in a position where they are forced to literally clean up after the mess of white supremacy, and risk their lives in doing so.

As police officers watched, White House custodial staff were forced under police surveillance to cleaned the rubble that the rioters had left behind so that Congress could resume its proceedings. Due to federal laws stating that government buildings must give priority in buying office furniture to UNICOR, a company that outsources prison labor from factories throughout the U.S., the furniture that replaces what white nationalists destroyed will most likely be made by incarcerated workers who are paid pennies, sometimes while forced to work against their will

Though Black and brown workers have long been forced to clean up after wealthy white people, the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic have made this issue all the more dire. In September, President Trump hosted a large ceremony in the White House Rose Garden to celebrate Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Dozens of people attended, and few wore masks. Both during and after the event, White House residence staff members, who are largely Black and Latinx, cooked, served, and cleaned up after the majority-white Republicans who attended the gathering. Shortly after, Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, called the party a “superspreader event.”  

Wednesday’s riot may also become a superspreader. After leaving the Capitol, the white nationalists took crowded flights home or stayed in D.C. hotels, potentially exposing more people to the virus. Kent State University epidemiology professor Tara Smith told The Hill that on top of the pictures and videos showing “a large congregation of individuals who were in close contact for an extended period of time and almost universally unmasked,” there were many photos of people “coming and going on buses as well, also unmasked, and hanging out in hotel lobbies.” 

After white nationalists incited violence and destroyed government property and were later allowed to largely evade any sort of punishment or police violence, low wage Black and brown workers are forced to washed away the debris and literally pick up the pieces. This dynamic has existed for centuries: Black, brown, and immigrant labor has long been exploited through low paying custodial, janitorial, and domestic work for rich white people. In 1793, slaves were forced to build the Capitol building for no pay. Three hundred years later, incarcerated workers, the vast majority of whom are Black and low-income, are constructing furniture for Congress for as little as $0.13 per hour, if they make any money at all. 

In the days following the attempted coup, many prominent Democratic figures have publicly insisted that the Trump rally was an anomaly, a stain on an otherwise strong and virtuous nation. “America is so much better than what we’re seeing today,”president-elect Joe Biden tweeted in reference to the MAGA riot. But this is where he is wrong: America is exactly what we saw on Wednesday. Built by slave labor and maintained by mass incarceration and police violence, this nation has long forced Black Americans to suffer horrific violence in the name of upholding, protecting, and contending with the waste of white supremacy, and whiteness itself.

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