Denial Is the Heartbeat of America

When have Americans been willing to admit who we are?

Illustration of blindfolded Americans
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.

“Let me be very clear: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are,” President-elect Joe Biden said during Wednesday’s siege.

“The behavior we witnessed in the U.S. Capitol is entirely un-American,” read a statement from a bipartisan and bicameral group of elected officials that included Senators Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and Mark Warner as well as Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Tom Reed.

“We’re the United States of America. We disagree on a lot of things, and we have a lot of spirited debate … But we talk it out, and we honor each other—even in our disagreement,” said Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma. “And while we disagree on things—and disagree strongly at times—we do not encourage what happened today. Ever.”

“That’s not who we are,” Senator Ben Sasse said.

“This is not the America I know and love,” Representative Brenda Lawrence said.

“I know this is not our America,” Representative Ed Case said.

“This is not who we are,” Representative Nancy Mace said.

“This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic,” Republican former President George W. Bush said.

“This is a national tragedy and is not who we are as a nation,” Democratic former President Jimmy Carter said.

Do these statements represent the American dream? Is the American dream the great delusion about what America is and who Americans are?

To say that the attack on the U.S. Capitol is not who we are is to say that this is not part of us, not part of our politics, not part of our history. And to say that this is not part of America, American politics, and American history is a bald-faced denial. But the denial is normal. In the aftermath of catastrophes, when have Americans commonly admitted who we are? The heartbeat of America is denial.

It is historic, this denial. Every American generation denies. America is establishing the freest democracy in the world, said the white people who secured their freedom during the 1770s and ’80s. America is the greatest democracy on Earth, said the property owners voting in the early 19th century. America is the beacon of democracy in world history, said the men who voted before the 1920s. America is the leading democracy in the world, said the non-incarcerated people who have voted throughout U.S. history in almost every state. America is the utmost democracy on the face of the Earth, said the primarily older and better-off and able-bodied people who are the likeliest to vote in the 21st century. America is the best democracy around, said the American people when it was harder for Black and Native and Latino people to vote in the 2020 election.

At every point in the history of American tyranny, the honest recorders heard the sounds of denial. Today is no different.

Americans remember and accept the enfranchising of citizens and peaceful transfers of power as their history, while forgetting and denying the coup plots, the attempted coups, and the successful coups. White terror is as American as the Stars and Stripes. But when this is denied, it is no wonder that the events at the Capitol are read as shocking and un-American.

In March 1783, Continental Army officers plotted mutiny against the Confederation Congress until George Washington convinced the officers to remain loyal. In 1861, pro-slavery insurrectionists assembled at the U.S. Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War came, lasting until 1865. White terrorists laid siege to the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday 1873, and violently overthrew the local parish government, massacring roughly 150 Black people in the process. On September 14, 1874, the White League violently attempted to overthrow the newly elected governor of Louisiana in the Battle of Liberty Place, in New Orleans. White terrorists rioted; destroyed ballot boxes; and intimidated, wounded, and murdered Black voters in Alabama’s Barbour County on Election Day in 1874, securing victories for their candidates.

In 1898, white supremacists murdered dozens of Black people and violently overthrew the democratically elected and interracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1921—in one of the most devastating economic coups in history—white supremacists murdered hundreds of Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and destroyed their prosperous Greenwood District, known affectionately as “Black Wall Street.” In 1933, financiers attempted to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to hand over power so they could establish a fascist government.

This is a small sampling—but are all the attempted and successful coups in American history not part of American history?

The denial runs through America like the Mississippi River system. I guess after Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia called for massive resistance to desegregating schools on February 25, 1956, those were not Americans who mobbed schoolchildren and college students from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Boston in subsequent decades. I guess those weren’t Americans who beat, jailed, and slaughtered the Americans waging the civil-rights, anti-war, Black-power, Brown-power, Red-power, Yellow-power, women’s-liberation, and gay-liberation movements from the 1950s to the 1980s. I guess their badges and Bibles and American flags weren’t American.

But distant history is one thing. Has American denial blinded Americans from seeing what has happened in their country over the past year in states across the land, on social-media apps across the internet?

Donald Trump has been attempting to incite coups since April 17, 2020, when he tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!; LIBERATE MINNESOTA!; LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” Armed and unarmed people gathered in state capitols in Michigan in April, Idaho in August, South Carolina in September, and Oregon in December over COVID-19 restrictions. And white terrorists plotted to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia last year.

On January 6, 2021, as the siege occurred at the U.S. Capitol, officials in several states, including New Mexico, Georgia, and Colorado, evacuated state capitols to protect against the gathering mobs. The crowds, on that day, breached the gate to the grounds of the governor’s mansion in Washington State.

All of this evidence. All of this, and still some say these people are not part of America. Their antidemocratic politics are not part of American politics. The long history of coups is not part of American history. Denial is the heartbeat of America.

A 2018 music video shows Childish Gambino shirtless in an empty warehouse. Two gold chains hug his neck. An afro and thick facial hair hug his face. Gambino starts walk-dancing to a sweet-sounding folk melody. He comes upon a man, head covered, sitting in a chair. Gambino pulls out a handgun, assumes a comical stance evocative of a Jim Crow caricature, and shoots the man in the back of the head.

The gunshot transitions the sweet melody to a hard-thumping trap beat. As the man falls to the ground, Gambino faces the camera, holds the caricature pose, and raps, “This is America.”

A child appears holding a red cloth. Gambino carefully lays the weapon on the cloth, and dance-walks away, toward the camera. Two children carelessly drag the body away in the background as Gambino raps, “This is America.”

Don’t catch you slippin’ now
Look at how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now
Yeah, this is America

After a while, the thumping transitions back to the melody. A robed Black church choir sings and sways. Gambino reappears, walk-dancing in glee, until someone tosses him an automatic weapon. He guns down the church members, in an unmistakable reference to the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting.

The gunshots again transition the melody back to the thumping beat. Gambino raps, “This is America,” as the bodies are dragged away, as he delicately lays the rifle on a red cloth again, held again by a waiting child.

Is this America? Does America protect violence more than people? Is gun life America?

Were the Trump supporters violently occupying the U.S. Capitol America? Was all that violence, all that antidemocratic sentiment, who Americans partially are? Did more than 74 million Americans vote for Trump? Do 77 percent of those voters believe what he believes, what those insurrectionists who sacked the Capitol believe, against all evidence to the contrary: that the election was stolen from Trump and that he actually won? Is all that happened on January 6 part of America?

It is. They are. All of what we saw at the U.S. Capitol is part of America. But what’s also part of America is denying all of what is part of America. Actually, this denial is the essential part of America. Denial is the heartbeat of America.

Since 2018, when “This Is America” unpacked three words used to cloak persisting violence, I’ve been arguing that the heartbeat of racism is denial. There is the regular structural denial that racial inequity is caused by racist policy. And whenever an American engages in a racist act and someone points it out, the inevitable response is the sound of that denial: I’m not racist. It can’t be I was being racist, but I’m going to try to be anti-racist. It is always I’m not racist. No wonder the racist acts never stop.

What is the inevitable response of Americans to tragic stories of mass murder, of extreme destitution, of gross corruption, of dangerous injustice, of political chaos, of a raw attack on democracy within the very borders of the United States, as we witnessed at the U.S. Capitol? This is not who we are. From this bipartisan perspective, America is existentially nonviolent, prosperous, orderly, democratic, just, and exceptional. America is apparently not like those so-called banana republics, which are existentially violent, poor, chaotic, tyrannical, unjust, and inferior—as Republicans and Democrats keep implying. America is apparently not like those “shithole” countries, as Trump called them.

To overcome Trumpism, the American people must stop denying that Trumpism is outside America. Trump is the heartbeat of American denial in its clearest form. He is America, shirtless and exposed, like Childish Gambino in the video. Trump is not fundamentally different from those elected officials saying, “This is not who we are.” He denies. They deny. The difference is the extremism of Trump’s denial. While Americans commonly say, “I am not racist,” Trump says, “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” While Americans commonly say to those Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol, “You’re not us,” Trump says, “You’re very special.”

Trump’s political opponents rage about the red meat he keeps feeding his base while starving them of truth. But when Republicans and Democrats say, “This is not who we are,” whom are they speaking to? Are they speaking to swing voters? Do they believe that older white centrists can’t handle the truth? Are they starving them of the truth, too? Are they feeding white centrists the red meat of denial?

Two groups of Americans are feeding, and feeding on, American denial. There are Americans like Trump who nonviolently—and, like his supporters, violently—rage, and engage in the carnage at the U.S. Capitol in complete denial of the election results. And there are the Americans who during and after the carnage say, “This is not who we are,” in complete denial that the rioters are part of America.

The white domestic terrorist who denies his own criminality and the American politician who denies that the terrorist is part of us both remain in the foreground of the American media, of American politics—taking up all our care and concern. Meanwhile, in the background, the violence is placed on red cloths as the victims of the carnage are carelessly dragged out of sight and mind—as Eddie S. Glaude Jr. powerfully says, “This is us.”

In a fall 2020 survey, 54 percent of Americans said that their nation is the greatest in the world, with 80 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats expressing this sentiment. In January 2020, the majority of Americans said in a survey that the United States embodies the grandeur of gender equality, happiness, health consciousness, and public health. Nearly four in 10 Americans said that their nation promotes income equality.

But America’s actual standing in the world tells a different story on these issues and others. The life expectancy of Americans is shorter than for people in other rich countries that spend far less on health care. The U.S. has the highest maternal-mortality rate of any rich country. Police in the U.S. kill their fellow citizens at significantly higher rates than in any other rich country. The United States has the largest incarcerated population per capita in the world. The rate of gun violence here is significantly higher than in any other wealthy nation. Only Israel has a higher rate of poverty among rich countries than the United States. Among G7 nations, the United States has the highest rate of income inequality. The U.S. ranks second only to Greenland in the highest rate of suicides by firearm, and most of those suicides are by white men.

This is America, just like the insurrection in the Capitol was America. We need to see this reality with clear eyes, because nothing has held back America more than its denial. Nothing has caused more human carnage than American denial.

If you can look at the carnage and respond That’s not us, then you’ll consider it to be an anomaly. Humans—like nations—are not going to perform radical surgery on cancers that they don’t think are part of them. Instead of seeing white supremacists as the greatest domestic-terror threat of our time, too many see them as marginal actors. Thus, the marginal response to the carnage. Thus, the carnage continues.

Police violence—instead of being seen as the unnecessary killing of three Americans every single day—is dismissed as the product of bad apples. Thus, the marginal response to Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s killings. Thus, the carnage continues. Voter suppression—instead of being seen as corroding American electoral politics—is dismissed as a rogue GOP operation. Thus, the marginal response to electoral carnage. Thus, the carnage continues.

Economic inequality and mass poverty—instead of being seen as the inevitable results of racial capitalism—are dismissed as glitches in the economy. Thus, the marginal response to economic carnage. Thus, the carnage continues. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism—instead of being seen as systemic and pervasive—are dismissed as being carried out only by those individual red hats and rednecks. Thus, the marginal response to the carnage. Thus, the carnage continues. And on and on, with climate change and pipelines and transphobia and assault rifles and #MeToo. And on and on, the carnage continues.

We must stop the heartbeat of denial and revive America to the thumping beat of truth. The carnage has no chance of stopping until the denial stops. This is not who we are must become, in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol: This is precisely who we are. And we are ashamed. And we are aggrieved at what we’ve done, at how we let this happen. But we will change. We will hold the perpetrators accountable. We will change policy and practices. We will radically root out this problem. It will be painful. But without pain there is no healing.

And in the end, what will make America true is the willingness of the American people to stare at their national face for the first time, to open the book of their history for the first time, and see themselves for themselves—all the political viciousness, all the political beauty—and finally right the wrongs, or spend the rest of the life of America trying.

This can be who we are.