Dylann Roof and Kyle Rittenhouse Are Proof That Racism Won't Just "Age Out"

Brea Baker
·6 mins read
Photo credit: MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Photo credit: MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

The shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23 brought the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin — and those of us watching across the country — to its knees. This is a natural reaction: to watch a man shot seven times in the back is traumatic for anyone. But imagine being one of his three sons, strapped in a car seat, hearing those seven rounds, and then seeing Daddy drop to the ground seemingly lifeless. Or imagine being one of the many community members who had just witnessed Blake break up a fight and were now watching officers stand over his body. Imagine being the family member who received that call. It’s no wonder that this community, grateful for Blake’s survival but outraged at the callous behavior of officers on the scene, would begin protesting immediately.

As is often the case in this country, protesters seeking accountability and cathartic release of their righteous anger were met with tear gas, mass arrests, and rubber-capped metal bullets. Three days later, protesters in Kenosha were also met by Kyle Rittenhouse, a teen who traveled from neighboring Illinois to become a frontline mercenary for white supremacy. The 17-year-old was shown on video brandishing an AR-15 and is charged with killing two protestors, Joseph “JoJo” Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and injuring a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, who is expected to survive." Not only did Rittenhouse evade arrest despite protesters pointing him out to police as the shooter, he also wouldn’t be apprehended until he was back across state lines and in his hometown of Antioch, IL the following morning. Days later, the president even defended him. The shooting and subsequent handling of the crime has led many in mainstream media to wonder what could bring a young man to such violence and why officers on site wouldn’t bring him in. Unfortunately, those asking these questions have yet again underestimated white supremacy and its regenerative nature.

Rittenhouse, a self-identified “aspiring cop,” drove to Kenosha armed and ready to defend property in a community that wasn’t even his own. According to interviews with former classmates by Vice News, “His clothes were often branded with pro-police slogans, and he carried a Blue Lives Matter phone case.” Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Blake in his back, is also on record having always wanted to be a member of law enforcement after watching his grandfather work as an officer for more than three decades. In order to understand these men’s behaviors we need to understand what they have been socialized into believing is the job description of a cop and how society has empowered them to act on those beliefs. The history of policing in this country has been one of stifling dissent and using brute force to maintain a racialized status quo. That media have also glamorized police work as a necessity for “our” safety has only further cemented the urge that people like Rittenhouse and Sheskey feel to protect authority, especially at the expense of Black lives.

Color of Change, one of the nation’s leading racial justice organizations, recently released the report, “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” exploring the idea of cop-aganda which justifies police misconduct as collateral damage in delivering community safety. While the study talks generally about who shapes these narratives (disclaimer: predominantly white men) and how often people of color and, specifically, Black people are depicted as dangerous, we can and should take it a step further when thinking about how young white boys are being indoctrinated to become future Detective Stabler’s, abusing power.

Everything about our country, from television/film to video games, has taught young people that officers must be listened to no matter what. The kind of person who aspires to that amount of authority and blind allegiance is then trained and coached into evading accountability and justifying their actions with racist tropes. And in a country with literal monuments erected to enslavers and mass murderers, we have all but loaded the gun for Rittenhouse and other disgruntled white teens. Rittenhouse is really the rule, not the exception, and everything his 17 years of life have taught him has led to this moment. Had it not happened now, would he have been the next George Zimmerman a decade later? Or would he have succeeded in becoming an officer and then been awarded with pension and paid administrative leave for killing people on the job? He did exactly what he was raised to do and therein lies our societal problem.

Racism will not fade out like the last song at a dance party. The shock and outrage we feel when we realize that, must be coupled with intentional action. So, what can we do? We need to cut off racism’s life source and make a commitment to sustainable change, as Jacob Blake’s sister Letetra Widman said. Considering every aspect of our society defaults to “white” as “right,” it will take a consistent effort to root out that little voice in all of us which registers white as superior whether we acknowledge it or not. This goes beyond our criminal justice system; it also includes medical racism which gives greater credibility to the opinions and pain of white people consistently over people of color. It includes the segregated social circles which, though seemingly harmless, ultimately hoard professional access and power in a culture where success depends on “who you know.” And of course, it includes the country’s broken education system, a result of our insistence on separate and unequal schooling, which is exacerbated under a pandemic where wealthy white students access private learning pods while communities of color are thrown to the wolves. These are all byproducts of white supremacy and must be addressed head on.

We also have to recognize that this is a prime example of why reverse racism can’t and doesn’t exist. Racism is about power; not simply prejudice. Had Rittenhouse hated those protesting yet stayed home, that hate would be his problem. But when multiple people are shot, his heroes and future colleagues congratulate him, and when he is reassured and tucked into his bed that night… it became our problem. Intentional anti-racist parenting needs to be normalized through diverse books or toys and honest conversations about the reality of race in this country. Acknowledging the ways that toxic masculinity consistently manifests into deadly violence is another part of disrupting this power. We need to have conversations with boys and men about combating entitlement before it’s too late.

Lastly, we must demand a concerted effort to keep digital platforms from becoming radicalization centers for white supremacists and hate groups. These beliefs do not exist in a vacuum, and they can be turned into actions in virtual spaces. Social media is no longer novel, and its impact is clear. We must begin the process of regulating the ways violence is organized right under our noses. From Dylann Roof, to Nikolas Cruz, to the white supremacists of Charlottesville, to Kyle Rittenhouse, racists always pass the baton. Societal refusal to take this seriously is a pandemic in and of itself.

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