Just before the verdict was reached in the Kyle Rittenhouse tri-al, Gregory McKelvey, vice chair of the Oregon Democratic Black Cau-cus, tweeted this to his followers: “Employers, consider giving your Black employees a day or two off after the Rittenhouse verdict. Regardless of the outcome, it’s going to be hard for Black people to work and it isn’t fair to expect them to.”
But why should black Americans be particularly upset about the Rittenhouse trial? It is true that the destructive protests which brought the 17 year old to Kenosha with an AR-15 in tow were over the police shooting of African-American Jacob Blake, but the three men Rittenhouse shot were white.
Nevertheless, it seemed very clear in the eyes of many on the left, including those in the media, that somehow this trial was about race. After the not guilty verdict was read, NAACP president Derrick Johnson made an appearance on MSNBC’s The Last Word and claimed that Rittenhouse’s acquittal “was worse than [the] Emmett Till trial”—a reference to the 14 year old African-American boy who was lynched by adult white men in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman and their later acquittal by an all white jury who agreed that the men had murdered Till but didn’t think they deserved imprisonment for it.
So how did Rittenhouse’s acquittal rise to the level of the justice system turning a blind eye to a racially motivated lynching? You’d be forgiven for thinking that the 17 year old boy must have killed people of color based on how the story was treated as a racial one. In fact, this very assumption was actually made not only by many average Joes on the street but by mainstream journalists who should have known better. For instance, Brazil’s most popular new-spaper Folha de S.Paulo had to pull a tweet which stated that Rittenhouse had killed two black men. The British news site The Independent provided a caption for an online story about Rittenhouse’s acquittal which initially read that he had “shot three black men.” The caption was later altered but with no acknowledgement of the error in the story itself.
Many who know full well that the men Rittenhouse shot were white nevertheless see an important racial component to his trial, namely that Rittenhouse’s freedom to walk through the streets of Kenosha with a semi-automatic weapon unbothered by police, along with his later acquittal, were the result of his white privilege and that “Rittenhouse wouldn’t have been acquitted if he was a black man.”
This analysis suffers at two points. First of all, bias within the American legal system is not an input/output mechanism wherein white defendants are handled with kid gloves and people of color have no ch-ance at a fair trial. For inst-ance, on the same day that Rittenhouse was acquitted Andrew Coffee IV, a black man, was found not guilty of murder after a jury believed his testimony that during a deadly SWAT raid police opened fire first. On the other hand, Daniel Sha-ver, a white man, was fatally shot by a police officer after a witness saw him holding a pellet gun throu-gh a hotel window. The officer who killed Shaver was found not guilty by a jury and retired by his department on the medical grounds that he had suffered PTSD as the result of the shooting and trial.
Of course the justice system isn’t just prosecutors, judges, and juries. It also includes police officers. Was Rittenhouse treated differently by police in Kenosha than an armed person of color walking the streets during the riots would have been? This seems like a hypothetical question for which we couldn’t know the answer, but there were in fact at least two armed civilians of color patrolling the streets of Kenosha on the same night that the white seventeen year old shot three protestors—Erick Jordan and his sixteen year old daughter Jade. The Wisconsin father brought his daughter back to protect demonstrators protesting Rittenhou-se’s acquittal, so police harassment doesn’t seem to have been a significant fear of his. Examples like these can be multiplied and demonstrate that this simple input/output narrative of “if he had been black…” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
While something like this input/output mechanism may have existed when racial discrimination was explicitly written into our laws, the most persuasive and fact-based arguments for systemic racism and racial bias today, when legal discrimination is technically outlawed, are ones which are more nuanced and complex. Instead of comparing Rittenhouse’s case to that of a hypothetical black man who is never given a fair trial, one has to step back and look at the real data in aggregate to see the disparate outcomes which may (and likely are) at least partly be explained by racism.
The other point where this “if Rittenhouse were a black man” analysis fails us is that it tends to lead to a mindset where an individual’s right to a fair trial and to be treated as innocent until proven guilty is undermined by racialized scorekeeping. When one reads between the lines of these kinds of arguments, the im-plication is that Rittenhouse should have been found guilty because he was white and because a black person in his shoes might have b-een treated worse by our justice system. In other wo-rds, it was not Rittenhouse who should have been on trial but white privilege. This is nothing less than scapegoating—punishing someone innocent (or at least innocent until proven guilty) for the injustices perpetrated by others.
This brings to mind an-other famous murder trial nearly thirty years ago that was also tinted with racial overtones—the O.J. Simps-on murder case. A now famous photo of a room full of mixed race spectators hearing the verdict on television told the story of a racialized America—white viewers were shocked that the black Simpson could have been acquitted of the murder of his white ex-wife and her white lover. In contrast, black viewers seemed to treat it as a victory for black Americans that he was. Comedian Chris Rock also highlighted the feeling of black camaraderie over Simpson’s acquittal that he witnessed at the time, summarizing the mood as “Yes, we won, we won! Yes! We won!” To which he retorted, “what the [expletive] did we win? Every day I look at the mailbox for my O.J. prize: nothing! Nothing!” In a Chappelle’s Show sketch years later which imagined the comic as a potential juror in the Simpson trial, a prosecutor asks him, “would you at least admit that O.J. more than likely killed his wife?” Dave pauses to reflect before responding, “sir, my blackness will not permit me to make a statement.”
After decades of trying to apply King’s formula of judging individuals by the content of their character a-nd not the color of their sk-in, Americans are again seeing identity being inc-reasingly collectivized alo-ng racial lines. In fact, K-ing’s dream of a colorblind society is now seen by ma-ny progressives as propping up white supremacy. But we have to see the injustice of this collectivist approach to justice. If Simpson had actually been guilty of murdering two people, how w-ould his acquittal have ma-de up for the wrongful im-prisonment of other innocent black men? If Ritten-house had a legitimate argument for self defense, how would his being found guilty have atoned in any way for racial injustice?
While we must address racial injustice wherever we find it, we can’t do it by drafting strangers into an internecine racial struggle whose lines were drawn (read fabricated) long ago by enemies of human peace and flourishing. We do it by creating a society of individuals instead of races.