The Myth of White Innocence

The system is working as it was designed. What does that mean? As far as I can tell, it means the system is designed to protect the myth of white innocence at all costs. The finger is ever pointed outward, never inward. There is always an other to blame who somehow forced white men’s hands.

It wasn’t his fault, because it was self defense.

It wasn’t his fault, because he was afraid for his life.

It wasn’t his fault, because they didn’t comply.

It wasn’t his fault, because they shouldn’t have been there.

It wasn’t his fault, because they ran.

It wasn’t his fault, because they dared to exist.

The system is designed to insulate white people from guilt. Even before Rittenhouse stepped into the courtroom, stand your ground laws, open carry laws, cops looking the other way or cheering him on, that judge who denied the victims their victimhood, media reports of him as a teen, a boy, a young man, assured him that the system would protect him. When a white man commits violence, there is always more to the story (we don’t have all the facts, let’s not jump to conclusions, something or someone must have made him do it); the narrative arc always seems to bend toward restoring his goodness. Rittenhouse is hailed as a patriot because he shot and killed a couple of Black Lives Matter protesters and got away with it.

We see this cloak of innocence draped over white folks all the time, beyond the extrajudicial killing of unarmed Black people: Aaron Rodgers blaming the “woke mob” for catching him lying about his vaccine status; white male rapists like Brock Turner whose futures, we’re told, are too precious to be squandered in jail; Clive Bundy and his sons trespassing on federal lands in defiance of federal laws and walking free. Even the most heinous mass shooters have us wondering what troubled these men so much. The focus always quickly turns from the gun policies, cultural assumptions and entitlements, and political propaganda as the conditions that produced them to wondering about their individual internal turmoil. The question is always, “what went wrong in an otherwise normal life?” instead of “why does our society keep producing these angry, aggrieved men who feel entitled to kill innocent people and then give them access to weapons of war?”

On a collective level as well, we see this narrative dynamic play out in predictable ways. The mainstream media is full of these stories:

It’s not their fault, it’s the economic anxiety.

It’s not their fault, it’s the immigrants, especially the illegal ones.

It’s not their fault, woke culture makes them feel disrespected.

It’s not their fault, they’ve been abandoned by Democrats.

It’s not their fault, they are the heart of America and they see their way of life disappearing.

This rhetorical machinery of white innocence is the work of white supremacy. It’s what reinforces and maintains the status quo of not only a racial hierarchy, but the denial that such a racial hierarchy exists. (Look, Condi Rice says that systemic racism is not a thing!)

In a recent online event with Nikole Hannah-Jones and historian Dr. Carol Anderson, one of them said, when Black is the default threat, “self-defense” is not available to Black people. This was extremely illuminating to me. “Self-defense” against a perceived threat becomes another unearned advantage of whiteness. The default threat is what makes white innocence possible to assert as a default position again and again.

To be clear, this rhetorical machinery operates just as forcefully and effectively in liberal or progressive white communities as it does in the most proto-fascist Trumpy ones. For example, part of the performative effect of liberal outrage at certain kinds of injustice is to show, “I’m not a racist! I’m not one of them!” Now, I’m not saying my friends and neighbors aren’t genuinely outraged or devastated; just that the cumulative effect of so much “not me” has something in common with the white innocence claimed by those other men, the same deflecting energy. It evades responsibility if you’re not also invested in doing things differently.

In my local community, which went about 90% for Biden in 2020, the myth of white innocence doesn’t come in the form of “All Lives Matter” or NRA stickers. No, here, the default threat of Blackness is perceived as Black leadership attempting to actually change the system for real this time. Change and accountability feel like threats to a system that was working pretty well for some groups for a long time. Black leadership is variously called toxic, power hungry, suspect, untrustworthy, incompetent, and yet should be at all times capable of predicting the future in order to get ahead of problems. And they will swear up and down that this has nothing to do with race, how dare you even suggest such a thing. To prove it, they will quote Martin Luther King, Jr. to tell that Black leader he’s gone too far when he names the racism. When you are the default threat, there is no self-defense.

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