The video that shows Kyle Rittenhouse killing two protesters and wounding another in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 25 has made him into the very embodiment of American race relations. He is yet another white male vigilante killing in the name of so-called law and order, as well as a self-described Blue Lives Matter supporter. He took it upon himself to leave his home in Antioch, Illinois, cross state lines, seek out a crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators protesting on behalf of Jacob Blake, and discharge his AR-15 into the crowd.
Rittenhouse personifies the power and the toxic lethality of whiteness, its abusive and narcissistic uncaring for the suffering and death that it causes. Especially when groups like Proud Boys and Oath Keepers applaud such violence. Especially when President Donald Trump - “the worst president we’ve ever had,” according to presidential contender Joe Biden – encourages such groups to “stand back and stand by,” in case more violence and death is necessary. This is American race relations 101.
“Race relations” is a farce of a description, by the way. At its best, it is a relationship between Black and brown Americans in survival and resistance mode, and many whites intent on physically, materially and psychologically abusing Black and brown bodies. At its worst, it is a macabre dissemblance meant to make whites feel as if Blacks and other Americans of colour have played an equal role in creating the nation’s history of systemic racism. It is amazing that Americans continue to use the phrase “race relations” to describe the kind of relationship to which no sane and caring person would ever admit having.
This July’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that nearly three-quarters of Americans, 71 percent, believe that “race relations are either very or fairly bad”. This is an uptick from the surveys they administered in July 2019 and in September 2017. In the 2017 poll, taken after the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, 70 percent of Americans had said they perceive “race relations” as either “very bad” (28 percent) or “fairly bad” (42 percent). And this latest poll nearly matches the record high set in July 2016 (74 percent), after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
None of this should be a surprise. Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment, and after months of demonstrations over the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks and the consistent militarised acts of police brutality in response.
But all of this describes racist abuse, not race relations. Really, the term represents an attempt to prove progress towards ending racism. Embedded in race-relations polls like the ones from NBC/WSJ, Gallup, Pew, and others is the belief that racism is only about hatred and the random actions of individuals, like those of everyday Karens.
Voters remain split on the root cause of racism and how to address racial bias and discrimination. A majority of Black voters in this year’s NBC/WSJ survey, 65 percent, said that people of colour experience racial discrimination because it is built into American society, including US policies and institutions. By contrast, a plurality of white voters, 48 percent, attributed racial discrimination to individuals who hold racist views, as opposed to institutions and society as a whole.
Boiling down race relations to either the racism of individual police officers and white vigilantes or to symbolic victories like declaring Juneteenth a holiday, for example, is almost unbelievably simplistic. This divide describes the difference between Americans of colour who face racist oppression every day and white Americans who benefit from it every day but are blinded by their racial privilege. For so many whites, Black reactions to racist incidents are overreactions, an uncomfortable challenge to their view of America as a land of freedom and equality.
The Pew Research Center’s description of the results from their Race in America 2019 Poll serves as another example for why the term race relations serves all Americans poorly as a measure of the state of racism in the US. “About six in ten Americans (58 percent) say race relations in the US are generally bad … Still, Blacks (71 percent) are considerably more likely than whites (56 percent) and Hispanics (60 percent) to express negative views about the state of race relations,” the pollsters wrote.
The Pew researchers who conducted this particular poll framed their findings by saying “since Trump was elected,” it has become “more common” for “people to express racist or racially insensitive views”. But this weak and passive language couching racism as the expression of “racially insensitive views” obfuscates the systemic and violent nature of racism in American culture. Not only in terms of American racism’s physical and material violence, but also the emotional and psychological toll it takes on Americans of colour, and the psychological and material advantages it affords whites.
American racism is primarily about maintaining inequality, of one privileged group’s grip on political, economic, social, and cultural power. American racism is hardly about maintaining an amicable relationship between whites and Americans of colour. The idea of race being about relations is a wishful delusion because it suggests that Blacks and whites in particular are on a level playing field. For so many whites, Black reactions to racist incidents are overreactions, an uncomfortable challenge to their worldview of America as a land of freedom and equality.
A better comparison between the delusion of equality through improvements in race relations and the hard reality of American racism as structurally intractable can be found in my own memories witnessing and experiencing abuse growing up.
For my one-time stepfather, it was not just about whipping me with a belt so that it would leave welts. Nor was it merely about the kicks, the punches or the constant threats to take me “out of this world”. No, my former stepfather wanted something more, even more than me calling him “Dad” with a sincere smile on my face. It was about shutting me up, about keeping me from ever speaking the truth of his abuse and monstrosity. It was all about making sure I never resisted, protested, questioned or stood up to him. Fortunately for me, I did. I have the scars and chipped teeth to prove it, too.
That he also taught me how to tie my shoes when I was seven or begrudgingly covered the cost of a bag of Great Northern beans, a box of rice, and a pound of beef neck bones a time or two – utterly irrelevant. I was still a victim, a captive of a man narcissistically hell-bent on controlling me.
So too has it always been with American race relations, only worse. A dozen or so years of reconstruction did not wash away slavery’s 246-year history of kidnapping, rape, torture, beatings, murders, economic exploitation, betrayal and psychic trauma, or being worked to death. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 in no way disinfected the physical and economic violence of Jim Crow, of white mobs lynching Black men and women, of the denial of voting rights and constant wage theft. President Obama’s two terms in office did not change America’s systemic racism problem one iota. And President Trump’s four years of passively supporting white supremacists as “good people” have been a more virulent replay of the American racism that has always been. This is not so much race relations as it is a 400-year cycle of racist abuse.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.