Back to Forum

The Antidemocratic Power of White Anger: Accountability in a Post-Insurrection Time

On January 6, 2021, white terrorist groups gathered in Washington, D.C. to engage in a planned and coordinated attempt to overthrow democratic institutions, using violent means to successfully breach the U.S. Capitol building. A few weeks ago, Senate Republicans successfully blocked the possibility of a bipartisan commission to investigate the root causes of the attack.[1] In spite of this setback, further details about the insurrection may yet be released to the public as federal prosecutors continue to gather evidence, arrest the participants, and bring some of them to trial.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol also raises important ethical questions about responsibility for emotions and for the actions they motivate, as well as the extent to which we assess and assign this responsibility through a racialized lens. For example, in the mainstream media coverage following this event, some commentators opined that the anger motivating the attackers, as well as the anger of those on the other end of the political spectrum witnessing and responding to the event, was destructive and divisive. “Both sides” were therefore exhorted to “cool things down” and “tone down the rhetoric.”[2] Some commentators suggested that many, or most, of the attackers did not really understand the gravity of what they were doing, either because of a general human tendency to get “swept up” in the heat of the moment when one is part of a large group,[3] or because of their particular susceptibility to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories.[4]

But other commentators noted that these apparently even-handed interpretations of the event would not be entertained as serious possibilities if the terrorists had not been composed predominantly of white people.[5] Persons of color lack the privilege to be able to march into a government building en masse, brandish weapons in a threatening manner, and afterwards emerge not in handcuffs and not dead.

How and why are human beings responsible for emotions and for their social consequences? And why does the dominant culture of U.S. society assess and assign that responsibility differently and inconsistently, depending on the racial group to which moral agents belong?

This dominant culture trains us to think about, talk about, and experience our emotions as non-rational, non-intentional impulses, in line with the theories of David Hume and William James.[6] If the white terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol building was an act of collective violence motivated by non-rational impulses enflamed by a fascist President, then it follows that the attackers are not really responsible for their actions. After all, you can’t say that people are morally responsible for their actions if you are also claiming they were manipulated into acting on their non-intentional impulses.

This theory of emotion as impulse will never function in a racially neutral way: Implying that the attackers were not really responsible plays right into the hand of white supremacy. Following in the tradition of Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, dominant U.S. culture typically constructs white identity as essentially rational and emotionally self-controlled, and does so by portraying white people as more rational by comparison with racial “Other” groups, who are supposedly guided more often by their impulses.[7] On the rare occasions when white people lose their self-control and sin, they aren’t really acting as themselves because their rational nature was only temporarily suspended by emotion, so they’re not really responsible. This white supremacist logic hides in the background when we hear the insistent phrase, “This is not who we really are.” (Who’s the referent of “we” when this phrase is uttered?)

As an alternative, theorists of emotion from Aristotle to Martha Nussbaum have tried to emphasize that emotions are always partially rational.[8] (This theoretical view has also informed the development of the Catholic ethical tradition, particularly in the work of Thomas Aquinas.) The specific emotion of anger is based on the partially rational perception that an injustice has occurred. Even an inaccurate perception of being slighted unjustly is enough to generate anger because, at the end of the day, human beings feel and act on the basis of what they believe to be true about reality, which may or may not be what is objectively true. Consider, for example, the white grievance politics that the Republican Party has been promoting since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, and which the Democratic Party had previously cultivated during Reconstruction. In both cases, we find a deeply resentful anger that is based on a delusional perception that white people have been treated unjustly.[9]

Therefore, the root ethical problem is not mob violence per se, or even the group anger that motivates it. This framing of the problem is too easily coopted in service to “both sides” and “whataboutism” rhetoric. Rather, the root problem is white racial entitlement. This is what fuels the delusional perception that white people are oppressed by various forms of “reverse racism,” that they have been unjustly slighted by “elites,” and that therefore they must “take back their country,” even by violent insurrection, in order to restore themselves to a position of dominance. This is what counts as “justice” from the standpoint of white group psychology. Basically, it’s Klan logic.

The adequate and appropriate ethical response to this kind of deeply culturally embedded white group psychology is not simply to try to “cool things down,” or “tone down the rhetoric on both sides.” Society should not enable its most abusive members by suggesting that holding them accountable, even in harsh terms, is equivalent to their violence. The white terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol building were not irrational, unthinking members of a mob who just got swept up in the heat of the moment. They knew what they were doing. (Evidence suggests that the organizers of the insurrection were employing military tactics and were assisted by at least some current and former military personnel and police officers.)[10]

Instead, an adequate and appropriate ethical response must include giving white terrorists the credit of being fully human, even if delusional, so that they can be held accountable for their emotions and actions. Such a position has a number of implications for applied ethical analysis. For instance, while belief in a conspiracy theory might be a helpful causal explanation that sheds light on why people showed up to participate in the insurrection, it does not constitute a moral excuse or a factor that diminishes moral responsibility. Such conspiracy theories appeal most to those who already (mis)interpret moral reality through the lens of whiteness, a worldview for which they were already responsible before they encountered the conspiracy theory. The white anger inspired by belief in such a conspiracy theory is therefore both partially rational and morally vicious.

It is perhaps tempting to avoid this fulsome approach of assessing and assigning moral responsibility because, after all, the Biden administration is in power now, and the Department of Justice and F.B.I. are busy tracking down the attackers. But we all know that the sick soul of U.S. society needs a more substantial salve than this.[11] The white racial group culture of resentment, entitlement, presumed dominance, and anti-Black violence will not simply go away as older generations die (many of the attackers were quite young). Neither is it possible to counteract this culture by prosecuting and imprisoning every last participant in the attack, beefing up security measures to prevent such attacks in the future, or monitoring the websites where conspiracy theories circulate and white terrorists organize and recruit.[12]

Rather, we are in the process of discovering that the far-right radicalization of a large portion of the U.S. population is among the long-term moral and political costs of the last four years of life under the Trump administration. While this radicalization has definitely been built upon a longstanding, 500-year tradition of white violence, the level of sheer moral delusion inherent in this latest incarnation of whiteness is creating a new crisis of moral accountability in U.S. society that is not easily or quickly remedied.

I do not pretend to be capable of proposing a comprehensive strategy for addressing this crisis, nor would it be possible or prudent to attempt to propose one in this forum. But I am fairly certain that the salve for this sickness must involve a recognition of the shared humanity among the attackers, the attacked, all the people of the United States, and all those reading this essay across our global network. Our shared humanity includes our partially rational emotional inheritance, which in the most powerful members of our society is liable to feed self-deception and violence as they seek to maintain their position of dominance. They cannot and will not be held responsible or accountable if our society continues to entertain the false rhetoric of moral equivalence in the name of political expediency. We must instead hold them, and each other, responsible not only for our actions but also for our emotions because, when the chips are down, they reveal what and whom in our society we truly value.

[1] Peter W. Stevenson, Adrian Blanco, and Daniela Santamariña, “Which Senators Supported a Jan. 6 Capitol Riot Commission,” The Washington Post (May 21, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[2] Amanda Marcotte, “Media Tries to ‘Both Sides’ an Insurrection: No, Anger over the Capitol Riot Isn’t ‘Partisan Rancor.’” Salon (January 29, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[3] Jill Filipovic, “The Truly Shocking Failures on the Day Rioters Stormed the Capitol,” CNN (February 23, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[4] Sarah McCammon, “Disinformation Fuels Distrust and Even Violence at All Levels of Government,” NPR (March 1, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[5] Amna Nawaz, interview with Ibram X. Kendi, “Police Response at the Capitol Brings Claims of ‘White Privilege,’” PBS News Hour (January 7, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[6] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. II (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910), 442-485, available at:”chapter XXV the emotions” (accessed June 22, 2021).

[7] Charles W. Mills, “Kant and Race, Redux,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 35, nos. 1-2 (2014): 125-157, available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[8] Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[9] Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[10] Michael Biesecker, Jake Bleiberg, and James LaPorta, “Capitol Rioters Included Highly Trained Ex-Miliary and Cops,” The Associated Press (January 15, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[11] Bryan N. Massingale, “Racism Is a Sickness of the Soul. Can Jesuit Spirituality Help Us Heal?” America: The Jesuit Review (November 20, 2017), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).

[12] Luke Broadwater and Nicholas Fandos, “Senate Report Details Security Failures in Jan. 6 Capitol Riot,” The New York Times (June 14, 2021), available at: (accessed June 22, 2021).