Racism is never a popular political strategy in U.S. politics because if it is popular, none dare call it racism. From legacy media to politicians to coworkers drinking coffee together, there is a hesitation to call things by their right names. The effort to eradicate “racism” and “white supremacy” from the American dictionary but not the body politic is one that has been multifaceted and incredibly successful.
Richard Henry Pratt first used the word “racism” in 1902; this is the first recorded use of the word. He was describing the immoral practice of segregation. (Before you get to thinking Pratt was an across-the-board anti-racist, he’s also the one who said “kill the Indian, save the man” encouraging the wholesale destruction of Native American culture. He just so happened to be right about segregation).
However, almost zero racists ever admit that they’re racist. Hell, most of them don’t even think they’re racist. That’s because the word has been shrunk into such a tiny box that almost no one fits, especially among White Americans. For far too many, a racist is a person who hates each and every individual person of a different ethnicity. Importantly, this imaginary racist uses the racist words.
That’s why the legacy media went scouring from here to Casterly Rock trying to find an instance of Donald Trump using the N-word. That would be the “proof.” To them, racism is an exclusive club and you have to know the password to get in. That’s also why “I have a Black friend” is a common defense against charges of racism. Remember, a racist has to absolutely hate each and every person of a different ethnicity. Find one person you’re cool with and you can skate on the racism charge.
This, however, is not remotely the definition of racism. If it were, no one would give a damn about racism. Why should I, a dude in Alabama, care about the interpersonal relationships of somebody in Maine or Michigan or Mission Viejo? In short, I don’t.
Racism is better defined as supporting racial inequity, actively or passively.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” I tend to think of “broad” more as “unearned.” Either definition works pretty well to my mind. Which brings us to Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Racists in the 21st century don’t even know they’re racist because they don’t bring abject hatred to their worldview. Instead, they bring sympathy and skepticism, both unearned. When a black man (or boy) is killed and the killing becomes a national cause, there are millions of people who view the victim skeptically. They want “the whole tape” or to “reserve judgment.”
The victim’s photo is splashed on TV and, if they’re black, the photo is inevitably the most thuggish, nigga-ish photo in the camera roll. This is unearned skepticism. You didn’t even know this person in Kenosha/Sanford/Ferguson/Minneapolis even existed until after he had ceased to exist. Yet, millions of people are skeptical. They’re only “reserving judgment” in the sense that a judge has not yet issued her ruling.
Kyle Rittenhouse took a rifle to Kenosha, Wisconsin and shot three people. For the purposes of skepticism/sympathy, that’s all you need to know. To a rational mind, the person who brought the deadly weapon should be initially regarded as the aggressor. If the facts of a case produce some other conclusion, that’s fine. That would be an earned conclusion.
Rittenhouse, though, was initially met with a flood of sympathy from right-wing circles. Much like the victims of shootings, they didn’t know Rittenhouse even existed until he was on television gunning down protestors. Any sympathy for Rittenhouse is definitionally unearned. Unless his sympathizers already know everything they need to know. He’s White, he had the preferred rifle of reactionaries, and he shot anti-racists. In my world, that sympathy is still unearned.
The judge in Rittenhouse’s trial seems to be rigging the game in the defendant’s favor. Does he despise Black people or use the N-word? Does it matter? Even if Rittenhouse is convicted of something, the judge will give him a lighter sentence than he would give a Black defendant.
It’s worth noting that nothing in the past 600 words indicates hatred, nor would hatred be relevant. People are dead, families are mourning, and murderers are walking, all because of the unearned results of white supremacy. Angry White reactionaries will feel emboldened to commit violence knowing that they’ll immediately be granted broad, unearned sympathy. I’d prefer if they hated me; at least then, they’d be honest about it.
Call everything by its right name.