September 1918, in the East Africa Protectorate (the white-ruled settler-colony that would become Kenya), a white settler was tried for causing “simple hurt” after killing an African “native” said to have tried to loot a flour mill. The settler sent for the “thief” and his tapered whip. He flogged the African, mutilated his genitals, strangled him and ordered his “houseboy” to burn and dispose of the body.
At trial, the settler judge said it was in fact the settler’s native employee who was the main culprit and suggested the all-white settler jury charge the African employee with murder and the settler with “simple hurt”. The jury charged both men and ordered them to pay 1,000 East African Rupees for the killing. The settler left the colony for a brief stint and upon his return was appointed to the District Committee in an administrative position charged with policing and enforcing the law against natives.
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November 2021, in the United States, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges after shooting and killing Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, while they were protesting against impunity in the killing of Black people. At trial, the judge allowed the protesters to be called looters and rioters and banned the term “victims”. Unlike the East Africa Protectorate settler, however, the American has not been appointed to a local position of enforcing laws against Black people, although the most prominent, white supremacist lawmakers are jostling to have him work for them.
Long before the trial began, and long before his actual homecoming, Mr Rittenhouse was already being carried shoulder-high in the openly anti-Black sections of society. One famous media personality encouraged him to run for president, apparently on the sole basis of his killing people attending a protest for Black life.
This will for Rittenhouse rule, although expressing a literal desire in some quarters, is better understood as a banner flown in support of lynching. Mr Rittenhouse’s killings provide a moment of inspiration for that segment of society nostalgic for the time of volunteer slave patrols and settler volunteer forces assisting the colonial police to put down the “restless native”. He is giddily welcomed not because he made a stand for automatic weapons and self-defence – as a disingenuous media sometimes attempts to claim – but because he killed people who rose up against the impunity of racists.
Mr Rittenhouse showed there was still some gas in the conservative tank (conservative in the traditional sense of pro-enslavement and pro-US apartheid) to destroy Black people at white will – as the old laws had it “it cannot be presumed that premeditated malice (which alone makes murder a felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate [the Black enslaved]”.
Even better, Mr Rittenhouse shot white people blackened by solidarity – those who they once openly called “N-word-lovers”, “race-traitors”, and “dirty abolitionists” but are now stammeringly accusing of being “anti-fascists”.
Acquitted, returned home to conservative embrace, Mr Rittenhouse has been flooded with internship offers from prominent white supremacist politicians, the personalities in government who are usefully misnamed “far-right”. A misnaming consistent with the concerted effort in media, academia, and courtrooms to present the traditional desire for the torture of Black people as having, but for a few “extremists”, expired with the American Civil War or Civil Rights legislation.
In conservative parlance, any talk of discrimination is whiny because, as US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG) puts it, “slavery is over”. What is never mentioned is that this is no thanks to them. They said chattel slavery would be ended over the Confederacy’s dead bodies. Once the movement to protect slavery, postbellum conservatism has been the struggle to bring it back and to salvage what is possible of it, to ensure, as MTG has, that the monuments to the history of Black torture are not torn down by uppity activists.
American conservatism has never been about anything other than the maintenance of white supremacy. Any representations to the contrary are useful lies. Mr Rittenhouse, the couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in Missouri, and police who kill Black people have flowers waiting on their doorsteps as they return home from trial – if they are tried. Left and right, in America, says less about where one stands on the question of government spending or on revolution than it does on how one feels about a foot on a Black person’s neck.
Among the most excited to receive Mr Rittenhouse at his conservative homecoming are those reported to have been interested in joining MTG’s shelved America First Caucus. The first reported to be interested were a US representative defending neo-Nazi white replacement theory and a US representative who headlines at white nationalist conferences. The latter said he wanted to arm wrestle the former with the winner getting Mr Rittenhouse as his intern.
The proposed America First Caucus shares its name with a 1940s committee set up to oppose the US entering World War II to fight Nazi Germany. The 1940s America First Committee was represented by an anti-Semitic millionaire, Charles Lindbergh, who was suspected of planning his own US party along Nazi lines. Billionaire President Donald Trump, in his podium-pounding speech, unsurprisingly made “America First” the theme of his inaugural address as well.
The policy platform of Greene’s America First Caucus also mirrors the language of a 1964 Ku Klux Klan application. It not only uses identical themes – patriotism, anti-communism, and the demonisation of foreigners and religious minorities – but there is also an imitation of language. MTG’s caucus speaks of “Anglo-Saxon political traditions”, the Klan of “Anglo-Saxon systems of government”.
It is “Anglo-Saxon” which crosses the line for liberals. In the unwritten laws of American liberalism, open white supremacy is given free rein if it has shed its most obvious identifiers such as klan robes, the N-word, and obvious plagiarism of the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan. Liberal politicians and media will only protect open white supremacist activists if the latter give them enough to work with so that they can be called conservatives (conservative in the whitewashed sense where support of slave fetters and coloured water fountains is forgotten).
Conservative racists openly hostile to Black people are welcomed warmly by liberal racists who consider relationships with the former – despite knowing more than most that they intend to use their power to harm Black people – non-disqualifying. They launder their intimacy with Confederates in collegiality.
Democratic leaders laughingly tell interviewers that they are gym buddies with their “Republican colleagues” – the same politicians who achieve through gerrymandered maps what Confederate veterans in the White Man’s League achieved on horseback, lurking around new Black voters at Southern poll booths in the first years of “Emancipation”. The Democratic leadership shares laughs with colleagues who “joke” they would have joined the Ku Klux Klan if it was not for the Klan’s liberal position in regards to marijuana.
White supremacy’s political activists in media and government are gifted the benefit of the doubt like no other segment of American society. They are taken at their word that they bear no ill will against “the blacks”, no matter how absurdly thin the veil or how blatant the signs. It is the inverse of racial profiling.
The car might be decked out with bumper stickers with “heritage, not hate”, a dashboard with Confederate statuettes and Nazi “memorabilia”, both taillights out and a muffler dragging on the ground as it puffs down a one-way street to Fascism Sq and if it is pulled over at all, it would be so that it can be offered free bottles of water.
This in a society where a Black man can be accused of rape or murder, have the accuser recant, have it proven that exculpatory evidence was withheld and there were “problems” with the police investigation, and be executed, whether in prison death chambers or sundown suburbia, despite his loud, persistent, and pleading denials.
And, if exonerated, if after activists put pressure on the conservative governor so that he can no longer make an example out of him as a reminder of white power to punish the Black person, he can hope to be given a microphone and asked to sing on America’s Got Talent. He would belt out in a bluesy tone in front of a teary-eyed audience, or be interviewed by a pursed-lipped liberal podcaster in the most gaudy shows of faith in a court system that should have been laughed out of civilised society ages ago.
He can hope to be put on display as a symbol of hope and “long-overdue justice” by self-congratulating police preservationists. As if there are not ten imprisoned Black, Indigenous, and economic war refugees whose stories are displaced for every minute spent blandly wondering aloud if one wrongly tortured person’s release after 40 years from a repurposed plantation dungeon might mark a turning point for “race relations in this country”.
For over a century and a half, as conservatives welcomed home lynchers, liberals welcomed home conservatives. This is why the best Indigenous and Black radical thinkers in every white supremacist settler-colony refused to accept the myth that the two groups represented opposing sides.
But even where the faith is genuine that horseback conservatism can become “Wall St” conservatism (as if one is a less extreme version of the other), even when Mr Rittenhouse’s story that he was trapped into making the white power sign or that he travelled to the protests out of good neighbourliness can be believed, even when it is genuinely conceived as possible that what excites settlers about “Trumpism” – a usefully distracting euphemism for planter Nazism – is a return to traditional religious and family values and not the prospect of a return to the great old days of the veldt and plantation rule, even when it seems worth it to bet on the ultimate good nature and humanity of racists, there is a problem.
It is a bad bet. The bet is made because all the gamblers wager are the lives of people historically targeted by white supremacists. And for those who grant themselves the right to wager them, these lives are disposable. Liberal hope is based on Black disposability. Our lives are cheap. Nothing much is lost betting them on a one to million chance that the swamplands of settler empire can, in the greatest u-turn in history, one day be democratised.
Every atrocity committed against Black people in the meantime can be written off as “sad”, said in the same regretful drawl as the belle shaking her head at the slave auction outside her window. Liberals waiting up for white supremacists to come home to be partners for a fairer America, that is to say the liberal bet on white racists, is racist.
Mr Rittenhouse is welcomed home because he shot at people rising up against the traditional impunity of racists. He is carried shoulder-high by racists because he gave them a hope that it still could be done, that real America has not lost its footing and could still bring down the beast of Black liberation.
Throughout American history, a thousand armed white mobs have joined police to put down Black and Indigenous discontent after killings with impunity. Thousands in these thousand mobs have received warmly the lynchers. Thousands in these thousands have helped mutilate and curse the corpse of the killed, have posed smiling for pictures with the lynched, certain of their eternal impunity.
Mr Rittenhouse is carried shoulder-high by a crowd we were told had long been disbanded. The digital mob seemingly emerging from every crevice of social media, every hole of colonial government, is a historical artifact, we are told. Lynch mobs are a thing confined to sepia photographs. There are no more smiling, pointing conservatives at the site of a lynching, conservatism means something else entirely now. This new mob laughing and cheering is something else. Things are, in fact, progressing in this country and after this brief stint in momentary darkness, things must only get better.
We are told this story as the mob amasses and the jackboots march across the Lincoln memorial because it is a bet they can afford and are willing to lose. They are, at this moment, turning their back, leaving their rural jail unguarded, and will claim they did not hear the lynch mob break in and drag out the African-American. And when it is all over, and at the scene of the burnt tree, the ash and remains are scrubbed clean with the obligatory “we still have a ways to go with race in this country”, they go out to receive their Kyles.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.