White America gives grace to everyone but Black people

Right-wing pundits like former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi are hellbent on framing Kyle Rittenhouse as an innocent patriot instead of the alleged violent criminal he is.

Photo by  Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

In an appearance on Fox News last week, former Florida attorney general and Trump flunkey Pam Bondi characterized Kyle Rittenhouse — the 17-year-old thug who, in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake police shooting, crossed state lines with an AR-15 rifle and shot three protesters, of whom two died — as a “little boy out there trying to protect his community.”

It was unnerving to watch even if you only knew the bare-minimum facts of the case. But viewed within the context of the current racial reckoning, the soundbite is another reminder that Black people are almost never recipients of the grace that white America bestows upon even its violent criminals.

For the record, I think Bondi’s coded comments were made in bad faith at worst and ignorant at best. But let’s, for the sake of her argument, apply the benefit of the doubt.

Police forces are some of the most well-funded and well-organized government agencies. According to Richard C. Auxier, a senior policy associate at the Urban Institute, the US Census of Governments reported that state and local governments spent $115 billion on police in 2017 (the last year for which comprehensive data are available. 86 percent of this spending was by local government. Across the country, police spending accounted for roughly $1 out of every $10 spent by counties, municipalities, and townships. $1 out of every $100 is spent by states. In some localities, close to half of their budget is spent on police. But the idea that Rittenhouse was simply attempting to protect and serve a community he didn’t belong to shows how little confidence the right, who believes Blue Lives matter more than Black ones, actually has in law enforcement to safeguard its cities. (Bondi’s excuse of Rittenhouse’s behavior is also inconsistent with the evidence that suggests community policing is the most effective form of policing if you believe there is one.)

When I was 17, I was doing ho shit in the backseat of my 1996 Nissan Pathfinder and walking around the outdoor promenade at AMC 30 every weekend as if it were a campus courtyard instead of one of the largest movie theaters in the world. (In retrospect, I guess we were too cool for the Town East Mall.) Back then, my parents taught me to mind my business as a matter of survival. It was my responsibility to be a kid: Go to school, respect your elders, volunteer at the local food pantry, keep family drama in house. On the other hand, white people — especially mediocre white men — exist outside the realm of limitations. They think they can do anything they set their minds to. It’s an astonishing phenomenon to behold. So it’s no wonder that a white teenager would feel compelled to go somewhere he was not invited without a second thought. The adults in his life probably taught him that other people’s business was his too. After all, in their eyes, he’s just a “little boy” who could do no wrong — even after he did.

It feels silly to intellectualize institutional racism when it lacks such little nuance to begin with. This country cloaks the Founding Fathers in reverence despite their collective and intentional choice to value five of my ancestors, who were stolen from their land and ill-compensated for building this country, as three free citizens. That’s one of the reasons I almost didn’t write this essay: How could a country that was founded on the idea that Black people were subhuman ever see us as worthy of its grace?

I can hear white folks pointing me to the institutions that were later designed to serve as course corrections for our founding blemishes. Black people can vote! Y’all have affirmative action! We elected a Black president!

But every half-step forward has been challenged or dismantled by those feel threatened by equity. In my last newsletter, I mentioned that within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision to neutralize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, my home state of Texas announced that t would implement a strict photo ID law; Mississippi and Alabama followed suit with similar laws that had been previously barred under the VRA. Donald Trump leads a party that gerrymanders itself to victory and relies on an anti-democratic Electoral College to gain presidential power.

And affirmative action faced a scare just a decade ago when a white woman claimed she was discriminated against on the basis of her race by the University of Texas due to its decision to deny her admission. The same Fourteenth Amendment that desegregated schools, empowered women to decide what’s best for their bodies and affirmed marriage equality was suddenly weaponized by someone who thought her whiteness was somehow a liability in America. Once again, an astonishing phenomenon to behold.

“In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much. Malia and Sasha Obama enjoy privileges beyond the average white child’s dreams. But that comparison is incomplete,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2014. “The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush — the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.” America elected President Obama with an unspoken expectation: You can be the leader of the free world as long as you publicly perform the kinds of public displays of respectability that make white people feel comfortable with their decision. “[We] never could’ve gotten away with some of the stuff that’s going on now,” former first lady Obama said in a recent episode of her Spotify podcast. “[Trump’s] community wouldn’t have accepted that.”

What makes white America’s stinginess even more pronounced is the fact that Black folks are such a forgiving people.

Weeks before Dylann Roof walked into Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015 and murdered nine people — including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney — and injured one person, he published a manifesto that The Atlantic described as a “seething catalog of hatred encompassing Jews, blacks, and Hispanics, feels quite plausibly like the work of a killer who spared one person’s life reportedly so she could tell the world what he had done.” Yet it was the loved ones of the deceased — Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, for example — who opted for graciousness in the midst of the grieving. “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again,” Collier told Roof at his first court appearance. “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

And after receiving a 10-year prison sentence for fatally shooting Botham Jean — a Black man — in his own apartment last year (sound familiar?), former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger got a hug from Jean’s brother Brandt. “I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you,” Jean told Guyger. “I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you.”

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment against the families that have experienced unimaginable tragedies at the hands of white people. (My faith and personality all but ensure I over-index on giving people grace in abundance, often without saving some for myself if I’m honest.) It’s a reflection on the incongruent reality that white people, as Kevin Powell of The Progressive wrote, “can beat, maim, or kill us, but we will forgive you long before we even think to criticize or resist the insanity. Because the same white fragility Robin DiAngelo described in her landmark book not only stunts white people, but it also leads Black people to go out of our way to comfort white folks, to center white folks, as Toni Morrison has said, to our detriment and shame.”

I was around the same age, give or take a year, as Kyle Rittenhouse is now when I experienced my first encounter with the police, which ended up with me and three of my friends handcuffed at a carnival for no reason other than apparently we looked suspicious. “I still don’t know what they think we did. We never got an explanation. We didn’t even ask for one. I begged my parents not to pursue it any further. I was just grateful to be alive,” I wrote earlier this summer. “What that encounter taught me is that cops were adversaries to be avoided at all costs.” That’s what it means to be Black in America today: Just grateful to be alive. The worst part of this story is that if my teenage self were to be placed next to Rittenhouse, most white people would view me as the threat. The same can probably be said for my sweet nephew who just turned 15 and used to plead with me not to kill the bugs we’d find while playing in the backyard. “I want them to live too," he’d tell me, unknowing that white people uphold a system that feels the opposite about him.

Speaking of teenagers, people who look like Rittenhouse are less likely to suffer from an education system that overwhelms a disproportionate amount of Black and brown kids with in- and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions instead of programming that deepens their knowledge, sharpens their skills, elevates their craft and acknowledges their humanity. I took my first journalism class during my senior year of high school. I can remember dreaming of becoming a magazine editor as far back as fourth grade but it wasn’t until I got a taste of it at school that I realized I could study the profession in college and ultimately live in the media mecca of the world. Most kids of melanated persuasions are less fortunate. Remember all that data about police funding you read earlier? Those are dollars that don’t go to health care, housing, community development and cash welfare. And it leads to a creative class with a top tier that’s grossly white, straight and male while women, people of color and queer folks are relegated to worker bees roles — often in non-creative jobs.

None of this crossed the minds of Rittenhouse or Bondi because it never has to. They think they are where they are and who they are based on warped views of American patriotism and individualism. It’s an astonishing phenomenon to behold. But a true patriot would require our country to protect the inhabitants of the communities they claim to care so much about with as much ambition as the stolen land on which those communities were built. Or is that too much to ask of a little boy, Pam?