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Smith: Rittenhouse and race

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In English grammar, the present perfect tense can refer to a state of being or an action that started in the past and continues into the present. An example is “he has grown upset because he has been waiting in line for so long.”

This linguistic phenomenon has several non-grammatical analogs, one of which is America’s historical struggle with racism. Racially fraught situations in the past often establish precedents and patterns that inform how Americans of different races (especially Blacks and whites) view current realities. For example, the hundreds of legislative attempts by today’s Republicans to prevent African Americans from voting are hauntingly familiar to such attempts by yesterday’s Dixiecrats. The methods are somewhat less overt, but the intended outcome is precisely the same — the GOP’s hollow denials notwithstanding.

Importantly, the complexities of race (and racism) often play out in ways that can be less straightforward. Enter Kyle Rittenhouse — literally and figuratively. Much has been made about the fact that most African Americans perceive him to be a white nationalist in training, despite the fact that he and his victims are white men. Rittenhouse’s appearances with the Proud Boys — not to mention his flashing of a “white power” gesture — only serve to reinforce that perception.

Despite the fact that many white Americans feign bewilderment as to how race plays into Rittenhouse’s case, the facts are clear. Driven illegally across state lines by his mother, he sojourned to Kenosha, Wisconsin, looking for trouble. (In addition to shooting three people, he repeatedly lied about being an EMT and didn’t “render aid” to anyone that evening.) Rittenhouse was there for the explicit purpose of confronting people who were protesting yet another shooting of a Black man by the police.

Right-wing groups, which are nearly always overwhelmingly comprised of conservative whites, called for their fellow travelers to converge on the city during a period of civil unrest. Their rallying cry might as well have been “vigilantes unite!” Wittingly or otherwise, Rittenhouse has become another cause célèbre for them.

The fact is that the catalyst for Rittenhouse’s illegal actions was his disdain for people with whom he disagreed. His explicit purpose was to physically confront them. Rittenhouse’s homicidal actions, as well as his words and actions before and after, give African Americans pause. It should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of us are highly skeptical of him and his supporters.

More broadly, there is a long history of white men taking the law into their own hands in this country — and the law has usually supported them. (Think “stand your ground” laws.) As a corollary, there is a long history of such vigilantes being treated as heroes. By contrast, Blacks who are the victims of violence, racial or otherwise, are very often depicted as criminals who deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Black young men who commit such violence (or even those who don’t) are routinely branded “thugs.” Rittenhouse was not.

Also crucial is the fact that the chorus of Rittenhouse’s right-wing supporters doesn’t sing the praises of African Americans who claim self-defense when confronting those who pose danger to them. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name an example of pro-gun groups rallying around a Black defendant who claimed self-defense in such encounters. Consider, for example, the lack of support from such groups for Kenneth Walker, who was Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend at the time police officers shot and killed her. Walker, who fired his gun, had no way of knowing that he was shooting at the police. He was merely protecting his loved one and his home.

Similarly, I can’t name a time in which conservative whites donated millions of dollars to the legal defense of an African American who claimed that he or she shot someone in self-defense. The “Back the Blue” crowd didn’t even rally around a police officer in Minneapolis who shot someone because he “feared for his life.” Of course, in that instance, the cop was Black and the victim was white.

I’ll use a counter example to make the point. James Joseph Reeb was a white minister who was murdered by a racist mob as he marched for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. African Americans still honor him for his sacrifice. We strongly support anyone of any race who stands with us in our fight for equality.
In short, “all lives matter” to Black folks.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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