The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict is American madness incarnate

A protester takes part in a demonstration outside the police precinct center in Minneapolis on Nov. 20, a day after Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal in the fatal shooting of two men during protests in Wisconsin last year. (Kerem Yucel/AFP)
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Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the chairman of the department of African American studies at Princeton University.

Since he killed two men and wounded another in what he claimed was self-defense, Kyle Rittenhouse has become the poster child for a general feeling among some in this country that White America is under siege. Rittenhouse defended himself, this argument goes, and White America must do the same.

The trial carried the burden of this sense of panic and the potential violence that comes with it. No wonder politicians such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), media personalities including Tucker Carlson and white nationalists celebrated the jury’s decision. The verdict affirmed what they believed to be true: that America is at war with itself and that “the innocents” must defend themselves at all costs.

“White innocence” — the refusal to know the world that racism creates in order to avoid responsibility for that world — threatens to choke the life out of our democracy. It always has. I don’t mean by the phrase some easy moral condemnation of racism or White privilege that, in the end, doesn’t ask much of us. I am talking about the intricate rituals of denial and self-deception that define how we deal and have dealt with matters of race in this country, a form of madness that is as American as buffalo grass and pine trees. And what else could it be but madness? To live willingly, across generations, in a lie.

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We hide behind the law, social mores and assumptions about the capacities, moral and otherwise, of those we treat unjustly. This allows us to find our way around the evidence that reveals we are not who we say we are. We contort ourselves to evade the obvious: that no Black teenage boy stalking around a protest with a semiautomatic rifle, no Black teenager who kills two people and leaves one seriously injured, would be treated, no matter what the law says about self-defense, like Rittenhouse. He would be dead.

Instead, we are left with the image of an innocent White teenage boy in tears defending himself against a marauding mob. He was the victim. “The innocents” are always the victim in moments such as these.

There were celebrations and skirmishes outside the county courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 19 as Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts. (Video: James Cornsilk, Laura Dyan Kezman/The Washington Post, Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Those who see clearly the lies and deception shout with all the breath in their lungs that there are two systems of justice in this country. They decry “the innocents” and their free-floating hostility only to have their voices drowned out by appeals to the sundry details of the law, by demands for faith in the judicial system and the pressing need (always from the lips of White liberals who quietly concede to it all) to vote for more Democrats.

It’s maddening. The masquerade of justice becomes the latest example of what Ralph Ellison described as “the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.”

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Reactions to the Rittenhouse verdict have been entirely predictable. The militant right has another cause celebre to prosecute its case for a violent defense of its vision of America. Others commend the virtue of liberalism and the importance of the rule of law as they accept the jury’s verdict and wring their hands about what it portends for the nation. Still others resign themselves to the fact that the system designed for “the innocents” worked perfectly.

This is too neat and too predictable. “White innocence” insulates this country from its sins and allows us to live with self-deception. It is the source of an American madness that corrupts everything. “The innocents” thrive in its illusions and lies. And American democracy suffers terribly, as it always has, because of it.