The acquittal on all charges of Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two people with his AR-15 rifle during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is alarming on many levels.
Whether or not Rittenhouse himself is actually a white supremacist, he has certainly been exalted by right-wing conservatives and white supremacist organizations as an icon of their political movements.
Colin Kaepernick responded to the verdict by tweeting that “White Supremacy cannot be reformed.”
Certainly, I would agree, a white supremacist value system, indeed a white supremacist anxiety, underlay this verdict. We also, though, need to unpack what it means to assert that white supremacy was at the heart of this verdict by looking at the somewhat broader implications of the verdict. We need to look at the broader implications of this verdict in terms of the work it did to erode democratic structures and give white supremacy license, energy, and oxygen in a somewhat different realm beyond the law.
Let’s put this verdict in the context of recent history since Donald Trump’s defeat in last November’s presidential election.
Well, let’s start there. White supremacy, a common and compelling analysis asserts, has structured U.S. society since its inception. The nation’s legal, governmental, and economic policies and structures are and have been informed by white racism. Trump’s presidency especially pandered to that reality, playing—and preying—on white America’s general racial anxiety about losing its privileges and whatever benefits attached to whiteness.
When Trump lost the White House, a loss largely attributed to an upsurge in Black voter turnout, especially in Georgia, a worry spread among elements of White America that the White House would, well, no longer be white, that it wouldn’t continue to enforce and sustain white privilege. Thus, so-called “insurrectionists” stormed the Capitol on January 6 to interrupt the peaceful transition in power to the Biden-Harris administration and keep Trump in power. I say so-called “insurrectionists,” because as I’ve written previously for PoliticusUsa, calling them insurrectionists suggests they wanted to overthrow a previous entrenched order when what they wanted was to maintain the U.S. racial order.
Having lost the presidency, the right-wing then proceeded, with great intensity, to attempt to dismantle the state itself as a democratic structure that makes and enforces laws and upholds civil rights for all.
Once non-whites showed they could avail themselves of the democratic system of government, that it was no longer a tool for maintaining white supremacy and inequality generally through political and legalistic means, well, then, it had to go. The system had outlived its usefulness.
And this is what we’ve seen now. Republicans, right wing extremists, and white supremacists hustling to use the tools of democracy to dismantle it.
Simply think of the wave of voter suppression laws sweeping through state legislatures. In Georgia, it’s now illegal to share water with someone waiting in line to vote!
But even this legislation is mild when compared to the efforts to dismantle the state, government, altogether, and to install authority and law enforcement in the hands of private individuals themselves.
This increasingly pervasive tactic we saw quite clearly in Texas’s recent anti-abortion legislation. As we’ve all heard much about by now, Republicans wrote the law in such a way that the state plays no role in enforcing the law. Rather, the law authorizes “any person” who does not work for the state or city government to file a civil lawsuit against anyone who performs or aids and abets the performance of an abortion. No state official is allowed to enforce the law, and the state is to have no role.
This Texas legislation, an example of using the tools of democracy to destroy the democratic state and rule of law itself, to legislate its destruction, is consistent with the rise of vigilantism throughout the nation (which I’ve written previously about here and here) and, especially, with the Rittenhouse verdict.
For all intents and purposes, Republicans and right-wing extremists eschew the value and authority of a democratically-elected government that represents the will of the people. Their behaviors suggest they reject the validity of the very concept of a government that embodies and represents the will of the majority, instead seeking to empower, even deputize, a minority of individuals independent of the state to enforce and impose their own beliefs on the American majority. They seek to subvert, indeed eliminate the state itself once it turns out people of color might participate in high numbers.
So, while certainly, efforts to sustain white supremacy are at the heart of efforts to destroy democratic government (in Steve Bannon’s words, to “deconstruct the administrative state”), it is also worth expressing what’s going in terms of the destruction of democracy.
White Americans sometimes have difficulty understanding that racism, or white supremacy, does not actually serve their political and economic interests (as Heather McGhee in The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together and Jonathan Metzl in Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland have compellingly demonstrated, to name just two examples).
Understanding that legislation as we see in Texas and verdicts as we see in the Rittenhouse case actually threaten, indeed strip us, of our democratic rights and disempower us, may help White America grasp the violence it is enabling and encouraging not just against others but against itself.
We with white skin must drop the language of “ally-ship” and recognize our stakes, our deep solidarity and common interest, in fighting for democracy and against white supremacy.
The Rittenhouse verdict is one piece of this larger campaign to destroy democracy and energize white supremacy by supposedly “empowering” the individual against the democratic state.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.