A jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin, found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of all charges on Nov. 19.
Rittenhouse shot two people to death and wounded a third person on Aug. 23, 2020. The people he shot were protesting the Aug. 20, 2020, shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer.
Video of the police officer shooting Blake in the back seven times – as Blake’s small children were present – sparked public demonstrations in Kenosha and elsewhere.
Rittenhouse, who was 17 years old at the time, drove from his hometown in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, claiming that he did so to help protect property from looting and destruction.
According to his trial testimony, Rittenhouse shot the three people in self-defense. A jury found Rittenhouse not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, first degree reckless homicide, attempted first-degree homicide, and two counts of reckless endangerment.
According to a front-page article by Shaila Dewan and Mitch Smith in the Nov. 20 national edition of The New York Times, the acquittal verdict in the Rittenhouse case “points to the wide berth the legal system gives to defendants who say they acted out of fear, even if others around them were also afraid.”
Later in the article, Dewan and Smith state: “The reasonable fear standard for self-defense has given rise to concerns that it is affected by the same racial bias that permeates the justice system. A mountain of social science research shows that Black people, men in particular, are more likely to be seen as threatening.”
That article also quotes Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who now teaches at Marquette University Law School. She believes that the jurors could have reached a guilty verdict had they decided that Rittenhouse’s fear of death or great bodily harm from protestors of the Jacob Blake police shooting was not reasonable.
The article, and much of the other commentary surrounding the Rittenhouse acquittal, is remarkable for two words that are not mentioned: “white supremacy.”
Across U.S. history, white people have claimed and granted themselves superior latitude to commit violence when compared to Indigenous, Black, Latinx and Asian people.
White enslavers kidnapped, trafficked and treated enslaved Africans as chattel to be bought and sold in this society from 1619 through the end of the Civil War. White people treated that conduct as “reasonable.”
As early as the 18th century, legislative bodies of white men were offering bounties for the scalps of Indigenous people. For white people, that policy was “reasonable.”
White clergy in Birmingham, Alabama, complained when Black people led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) engaged in nonviolent demonstrations and boycotts of white-owned businesses to protest racial segregation.
They did not complain when police officers released dogs to attack and discharged fire hoses that knocked the protestors from their feet. The attacks by police dogs and discharge of fire hoses were “reasonable.”
White people “reasonably” viewed nonviolent protest of blatant injustice as threatening to public safety, law and order.
Removal of Indigenous people from lands they had occupied for generations and forcibly moving (marching) them onto “reservations” so white settlers could take the land was “reasonable.”
Deploying the U.S. Army to wage war against Indigenous people who refused to move was “reasonable.” When the Indigenous people resisted removal, they were labeled “savages.” That labeling was also “reasonable.”
Hundreds of Black men, women and children were killed in Elaine, Arkansas, between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, 1919.
They were massacred by white men who, like Kyle Rittenhouse, took it upon themselves to cross state lines from Mississippi and Tennessee. They were killed by war-hardened soldiers who traveled by train with the Arkansas governor from Little Rock to Phillips County, Arkansas.
The white people who hunted and killed Black men, women and children claimed they were preventing the massacred people from murdering white people. No white person was charged or tried for the Elaine Race Massacre.
In the minds of white politicians, journalists, prosecutors, judges and the general public, unsubstantiated fears of white people that Black people were plotting to murder them and actions by white vigilante groups and soldiers to massacre Black men, women and children were “reasonable.”
The murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi resulted in acquittal verdicts for the white men accused of kidnapping and killing him. Seating an all-white jury to consider the evidence and prohibiting Black people from serving on the jury was “reasonable.”
Forced removal and internment of law-abiding Japanese citizens of the United States during World War II was “reasonable.” Doing so without proof that any of the internees were disloyal or posed a threat to national security was “reasonable.”
White supremacy, not self-defense, is the two-word explanation for these and other notorious injustices perpetrated by white persons and groups in the name of justice, law and order.
History proves that white assertions of fearfulness have been accepted as legitimate without any evidence, and even despite plain evidence showing that white people were aggressors.
The prosecutors in the Rittenhouse case had to overcome that effect of white supremacy in their effort to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse was guilty of the charged crimes.
That was clear when the trial judge allowed defense lawyers to label the protestors Rittenhouse shot to death and wounded “rioters” and “looters,” but would not allow prosecutors to call them “victims.”
Remember this as the trial of three white men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arberry continues in Georgia. As in the Rittenhouse case, the defense strategy emphasizes age-old white supremacist fears that white people hold involving Black lives.
Remember this as the trial of white supremacist leaders charged with engaging in a conspiracy to violate civil rights of peaceful protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, continues this month.
In an opinion column published by The Guardian newspaper, Cas Mudde states: “In essence, the Rittenhouse ruling has created a kind of ‘stand your ground’ law for the whole country. White people now have the apparent right to travel around the country, heavily armed, and use violence to protect the country from whatever and whoever they believe to be threatening to it. Given the feverish paranoia and racism that has captured a sizable minority of white people in the US these days, this is a recipe for disaster.”
That observation is only partially correct.
The history of the United States, and everywhere else white people have settled in the world among people of color, is that white people have always defined fear of people of color and racial justice as “reasonable,” even when their conduct, like that of Kyle Rittenhouse, posed the most obvious dangers, threats and risks for harm.
Racial injustice has persisted across U.S. history and continues – legally, economically, politically, socially and culturally – because white supremacy is now – and has always been – sacralized.
By sacralized, I mean that white supremacy has always been considered sacred. Whiteness has always been the standard of “rightness.”
Thus, it is a fundamental mistake to view and treat white supremacy as merely an attitude or a set of practices and policies. White supremacy is something approaching a theology in this society, if not the world!
The historical evils set out by the 1619 Project and continuing evils – including mass incarceration, state-sanctioned abuse and homicide of Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous people by police agencies, racist immigration policies that target people from South and Central America, South Asia, Africa and Muslims, dislocation and other economic oppression of communities of color through gentrification and other commercial schemes, and the refusal to engage in the long overdue work of reparations – are based on that sacralized sense of white supremacy.
According to that mindset, worldview and value system, white norms are superior, white culture is superior, whiteness entitles a person to a presumption of superior morality, dignity, intellect and privilege.
Based on that white supremacist mindset, the only legitimate account of the past is whatever benefits and glorifies whiteness. The only legitimate remedies for racial injustice are those fashioned and/or accepted by white people based on white values and goals.
In that sense, race is more than a social construct. White supremacy is a theological construct by which white norms, goals and aims define what is right, good, true, healthy, fair and “reasonable.”
The 1619 Project and critical race perspectives on history, law, economics, politics and religion challenge that worldview. Those challenges to white supremacy frighten white supremacist politicians, judges, journalists, educators, parents, pastors, scientists and business owners.
White supremacy is being defended so fiercely now because more people – including more white people – understand what Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color have long known.
White supremacist notions of history, religion, economics, education, law (including self-defense), science and culture are based on lies.
The Rittenhouse case and outcome shows that those lies are deadly, and that the American legal system upholds them as “reasonable.”
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.