Peak Privilege

There are just so many things in this single event that are almost inconceivable for a non-white person to get away with. There are things the legal system afforded Kyle that it would rarely extend to others. The response from police and a justice system that not only punishes POC perpetrators more harshly but goes so far as to actively vilify these groups, even targeting the innocent, of letting off a man (with sympathy) after he killed two people is probably the starkest display of white privilege I’ve seen in a while.

Many of us were likely in that familiar mindset of being wholly unsurprised yet still feeling a painful sense of injustice. The verdict isn’t the (only) thing that triggers such feelings. It’s the entire system that enabled not only a not guilty verdict to be reached, but that also enabled Kyle to leave Kenosha alive after entering with a semi-automatic weapon and shooting three people.

Probably the most obvious place to start in differentiating how law enforcement treats Black bodies and white bodies is Kyle Rittenhouse walking up to police with a rifle. It’s almost inconceivable that a Black person would make it past police officers carrying a gun, especially when Black people, younger and smaller than Kyle, have been killed by police who even just suspected they were armed. And when Black people are legally armed, their Second Amendment right is very rarely respected or defended with the same gusto (recall Philando Castile).

Kyle’s not subject to profiling in the same way POC groups are, he’s therefore more humanised, more individualised, and thus, more sympathetic. That’s what allowed the defense to put him on the stand with confidence, what allowed him to be seen as a young man with a future etc etc…

why people will see him as someone who wanted to serve his community and not a violent, pesky instigator. Conservatism and white supremacy also play a role here, as the victims were white but not an “acceptable” whiteness by the conscious or unconscious standards of these groups.

These were white people who had aligned themselves with Black Lives Matter and were threats to what white supremacy and the American system wants to uphold. Their rejection despite being white illustrates the institutional conservatism that permeates these systems along with the institutional racism. We saw this to the extent that Judge Bruce Schroeder didn’t allow those killed to be referred to as victims, because the term was considered too “loaded,” but said that they could be called “looters,” “rioters” and “arsonists”, as if these weren’t loaded terms that would influence a jury in any way.

The victims of the shootings are not offered the same grace as having acted in self-defence, either. After seeing someone kill a man, they pursued  him, fired warning shots and attempted to disarm him, yet Kyle was seen as the party in danger. Compared to the actions of the protestors it’s Kyle’s that stand out as more unreasonable, violent and aggressive, but he has the armour of white boyhood and the status quo, so this was never going to be part of the narrative. 

Whitewashing on Fox News

The acceptance of Kyle in both mainstream and conservative circles also highlights the conservative context in which the killings and trial took place and how these add to Kyle’s privilege index. Republican senators are offering him jobs, Tucker Carlson did an interview, and far right groups are citing the case as setting a precedent for vigilante action. His attaining martyrdom status among Republican, mainstream and far right extremist groups, and that going largely unquestioned, is an important backdrop to Kyle’s acquittal.

Imagine if an official came out hailing the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers as heroes… Attitudes towards non-white groups, extremist or otherwise, have historically been a lot more damning form law enforcement, government and society. Despite white supremacy and white supremacist groups being acknowldedged by the FBI as possibly the most dangerous domestic threat to the United States, a disproportionate amount of time and resources continue to be spent on the comparative over-policing and over-surveillance of non-white groups and individuals.

Kyle is given the benefit of the doubt. Instead of being considered a chaos tourist, right-wing counter protestor looking for trouble or even just someone who’s not where he was supposed to be, he’s seen as the victim who had to defend himself against looting aggressors. Black folk have been treated more suspiciously for being in their own neighbourhoods and colleges.

It’s that same benefit of the doubt that lets a mass shooter be bought Burger King or a rapist have their swim times published, because somewhere inside them people see a good young man with a future, a future white observers are invested in for one reason or another. The point is it’s their shared whiteness that forms the root of this investment, which factors into why we see disproportionate outcomes in the justice system, why Black men receive sentences up to 20 percent longer than whites for the same crimes, why Chrystul Kizer is still awaiting trial and facing life in prison.

There are things Kyle gets because he’s white that other groups don’t, things that oftentimes the system is designed for POC not to get. Kyle can claim all he wants that this all has “nothing to do with race,” but that’s an ignorant position that itself comes from a place of privilege. He had told interviewers “part of my job is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.”

It could be said that the protestors were following a similar logic; running into harm’s way after seeing someone hurt, but neither them nor their cause are afforded the same level of sympathy or justice. They were looters, rioters and arsonists. Kyle was doing his duty, protecting private property (another ideal that’s politically, economically and racially loaded). He was helping others, supporting the blue badge, doing what a young American should. He was a white boy upholding whiteness, and he was most certainly not going to be punished for that.