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When College Graduates Participate in a White Supremacist Riot

By Leigh Patel

Before the Capitol siege
Before the siege: US Capitol grounds, East Plaza off First Street and East Capitol Street, Washington, DC, on Wednesday afternoon, 6 January 2021. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes Photography

Jim Clyburn, Congressional representative from South Carolina and the majority whip, has an office in the Congressional Chambers with his name title displayed clearly. However, Clyburn does not work out of that office, instead working from an unmarked one with this staff. On January 6, the day of the storming of the Capitol building, some of the domestic terrorists attempted to enter Clyburn’s office. His staff had piled furniture and were texting from inside. They were able to block the rioters from entering. Clyburn stated in an interview with NBC news, “My question is how did they know where that office was? There were [inside] people taking selfies with these insurrectionists.” Part of the unfolding of events prior to the insurrection contain the report that on January 5, some lawmakers provided a reconnaissance tour for some of the insurrectionists.

As the nation moves past two weeks that included what many called a violent breach of ‘the peoples’ house,’ as well as the election of a career politician as the nation’s forty-sixth President, now is a good time to ask how some police officers, elected officials, and their college-educated aides came to play a role in fomenting the insurrection. Was this an aberration from their education or was it an outcropping of the education they received? The relationships between famous alumni are under a new light and are unveiling how deeply some lawmakers were complicit with the white supremacist attack on the US federal government.  

Institutions of higher education tend to lift up the public accomplishments of their alumni. Alumni of public standing are promoted via school websites and even hold advising roles at their alma maters. For example, the University of California, Berkeley has reserved parking spaces for winners of the Nobel prize. Several people who were involved in the insurrection and claimed voter fraud have been identified, and the universities they attended are now reckoning with what to say and how to, in essence, distance themselves from these famous alumni.

Universities are taking various actions to distance themselves from those caught in the video and records for having breached not just the Capitol but laws themselves. Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik has been removed from a committee in Harvard’s Kennedy School for Politics. Sean Spicer, former press secretary in the Trump administration, had held a fellowship from the Kennedy School, but the school has not issued a statement about Spicer. In fact, the removal of alumni involved in manufactured voter fraud claims and supporting the insurrection, is unique. Most of the reaction from universities has been either silence or vague statements that condemn incitements. The University of Pennsylvania, whose alumni include Donald Trump, released a statement from the university’s president and provost, saying that they join “together with everyone who raises their voices and condemns threatening incitements and assaults on the political freedom of all citizens.”

These statements have only cited recent events and not addressed two crucial facts. One, graduates from elite institutions of higher education have social networks that are often used to facilitate remaining in power and building wealth. They have earned degrees from institutions that have been built through the stolen labor of enslaved Black people, and in all likelihood, their college educations did not teach them that history, nor the long-standing freedom struggles that students have mobilized for de-centering whiteness in admissions, faculty ranks, and curriculum. Second, these statements say nothing about the thousands of peoples’ homes that are invaded regularly, by police officers and sanctioned by the law. Black medical worker Breonna Taylor was fatally shot seven times on March 13, 2020 in her bed, after police dressed in plainclothes used a no-knock entry. In 2019, Anjanette Young, a Black social worker in Chicago, was woken in the middle of the night as police with automatic rifles, again with a no-knock entry, searched her apartment. For almost one full minute, Young was naked, repeating that the police were in the wrong apartment. The police then left, turned off their video cameras, and turned them back to re-enter and apologize to Young. There is precious little that is unprecedented about the terrorism that occurred in the nation’s capital on January 6. As scholar Sabina Vaught put it, “If we are the people, then where we reside is also the people’s house” (personal communication, January 8, 2012).

Elite universities are complicit when they mis-educate often well-monied students admitted through legacy policies into thinking that they are smarter and they must take up high positions—one would think—for the larger good. However, historian Craig Steven Wilder reminds us that the nation’s Ivy League schools were built through enslaved Black labor for the benefit of white men who attended those schools in the 1800s. Furthermore, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz reminds us that the history of this nation, for Indigenous peoples, is nonstop invasion, destruction and erasure.

Four centuries after the first ship arrived on the shores of what is now called Cape Cod carrying enslaved African people, Black hourly employees were the ones cleaning up the glass and debris that the white, mostly male, terrorists left in their wake. The past was entirely present in the completely precedented invasion of the Capitol.


About the Author 

Dr. Leigh Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, writer, and is Professor of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. She works extensively with societally marginalized youth and teacher activists. Patel is a recipient of the June Jordan Award for scholarly leadership and poetic bravery in social critique and is a national board member of Education for Liberation, a long-standing organization dedicated to transformative education for and by youth of color. She is the author of Youth Held at the Border, Decolonizing Educational Research, and the forthcoming No Study Without Struggle. Connect with her on Twitter at @lipatel.