These were the trials Kyle RittenhouseThree men are accused of murdering Ahmaud ArberyThey had very different results. These two events, however, were just days apart. They exposed an important and persistent current in the fight against racial inequality: The attempt by some white Americans, to take control of gun rights and resist perceptions that lawlessness is a problem, especially for Black people.
These questions also raised the following: Who is being protected? What should be done to ensure the safety and security of Black Americans, so that white Americans have peace of mind?
“So much of this issue about protection and safety is about the safety and the protection of whites or white property,” said Carol Anderson, historian and professor of African American studies at Emory University. “There is a hubris of whiteness. The sense that it is on me to put Black lives back into their proper place.”
Arbery, who is Black, was shot and chased down by three white men in the neighborhood of Georgia. In Wisconsin, while both Rittenhouse and the three men he shot were white, the encounter was triggered by the 17-year-old’s decision to travel from his Illinois home to Kenosha and arm himself with an AR-15 rifle, bent on protecting local businesses from Black Lives Matter protesters.
The unmistakable connection: The idea that white men who perceive a problem “should grab a gun and wade into trouble and then claim self-defense,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.
“This is a product of a gun culture. It’s also a product of laws … that give white men with guns the ability to create chaos and sometimes get away with it,” said Waldman, author of “The Second Amendment: A Biography.
The two coinciding trials highlighted deep racial rifts within American society, particularly following last year’s broad movement for racial justice that swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Both also came at the end of a year that began with an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in which an overwhelmingly white crowd of supporters of former President Donald Trump, enraged with the idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from them, stormed the building in an effort to take ownership of the government.
The impetus for raiding the Capitol, Anderson said, was the unfounded claim that there was massive amounts of voter fraud in cities where there were sizable Black populations, “the notion that Black folks voting is what stole the election.”
“That’s the thing about vigilantism, it’s that something precious to me, for me, for my community, is being stolen and it’s being stolen by the unworthy, by the undeserving,” Anderson said.
White vigilantism signifies “the need to keep the Black population, particularly the Black male population, under surveillance and under control,” said writer Darryl Pinckney. It has evolved over time, but there is a long history in the U.S. of people taking the law into their own hands — and of white Americans using that as a pretext to violently enforce racial boundaries.
Pinckney mentioned vagrancy laws as well as Black Codes which were created after the Civil War to manage freed slaves. “Laws that say, ‘if you can’t say where you live, you can be locked up and made to work on the chain gang for some time.’” During segregation, Black people were told they were in the wrong place. In the days of integration, it was a questioning of why Black people were in a particular place — a demand for proof that they belonged in order to put white people “at ease.”
Arbery’s death recalls the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, by a white Hispanic man patrolling his Florida subdivision against supposed criminals. For many Black Americans, that case served as a cautionary tale that just being Black could make them targets, said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University’s law school.
Willig said that there was an obvious connection between Martin’s death and Emmett, the famous 1955 Mississippi lynching. Emmett was a Black teenage visiting Mississippi from Chicago. He was brutally murdered by two white vigilantes who believed the teenager had cursed at a white girl. The Arbery case, however, is yet another sign of the malice waiting for Black Americans who cross into areas considered white strongholds.
Ordinary white Americans have a long history of organizing violence against Blacks by their citizens. This has often been done with explicit or tacit approval of authorities. Ashley Howard is an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Iowa. She mentioned slave patrols which set out to capture fugitive slaves.
Arbery’s killers “were operating under that kind of slave patrol code, which basically deputized all whites to have the power to question anybody Black about why are you here? What are you doing here?” Anderson said.
Howard explained that during civil rights movements, the police used to turn their backs on white vigilantes arriving in Black communities to suppress protests. It was falsely believed that Black people were aggressive towards whites, which led to violence.
“It’s this feeling that the world that they know is being attacked,” Howard said of white vigilantes. “It is being threatened and they need to literally pick up arms and defend it against the roving mobs or however they are being framed and understood.”
While Rittenhouse’s victims were three white men, race stood at the heart of his case, too, given that he decided to take up arms in defense of property during a Black Lives Matter protest, and his victims were white men who were standing up for the equal treatment of Black Americans. “Attacking the white allies of Black liberation has always been a part of the story,” Pinckney said.
Elijah Lovejoy (white abolitionist, newspaper editor) was killed by a proslavery mob at Alton, Illinois in 1837. His killers were found “not guilty.”
James Peck, a white activist during the civil rights movement, was deemed a race traitor by the KKK, brutally beaten to a “bloody pulp” during the Freedom Rides, as civil rights activist John Lewis described it.
Viola Liuzzo (a white civil rights activist) was killed and shot by Ku Klux Klan gang members.
In today’s context, following persistent pleas that “Black lives matter” and many white people heeding the call to join the movement, discomfort and fear around a loss of white identity or power are being stoked once again, and some feel increasingly emboldened to address it.
“White identity has never been challenged to this degree or abandoned to this extent by other white people,” Pinckney said. “There is a real sense of betrayal, and that’s part of the fear — this loss of status or the devaluation of personal whiteness.”
Nasir is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/noreensnasir