In the Rittenhouse verdict, systemic racism in the US justice system hides behind a technicality

In the Rittenhouse verdict, systemic racism in the US justice system hides behind a technicality
The trials of Rittenhouse and the McMichaels should have represented a watershed moment in US history, yet they simply reflect how the entire US system remains steeped in systemic racism with no serious drive to change, writes Richard Sudan.
6 min read
24 Nov, 2021
Revolution Club, LA holds a protest and march starting at Pan Pacific Park following the Kyle Rittenhouse trial verdict on Saturday, 20 November 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. [Getty]

The trial of both the killers of Ahmaud Arbery and also the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in the US should represent a seminal chapter in US history, and the start of a true reckoning with America's longstanding history and love affair with white supremacy. The global protests following the murder of George Floyd have demanded such accountability, and importantly, so has the world.

Not just that, but beyond huge swathes of the global public, imploring the US to deal with the scourge of systemic anti-Black racism, the United Nations too issued a call for the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries, to "stop denying racism" and to "start dismantling it".  The problem is serious.

"painting innocent Black men as the aggressor is a classic white supremacist tactic and is not a new phenomenon in the US"

But, far from the trials actually representing some kind of profound watershed moment in America, they are simply reflecting how much the American system, from top to bottom, remains in a state of deep paralysis, steeped in systemic racism, with no real drive to reform it.

Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and lynched, for running while being Black and for daring to cross Georgia's racial boundaries while jogging. The killers of Ahmaud Arbery, almost evaded justice entirely, and, were it not for the incident being caught on camera, might never have faced trial.

The legal apparatus in Georgia and former Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson also face serious questions over a conspiracy to protect their former colleague Gregory McMichael and his son Travis who fired the shotgun blasts killing Arbery.

The treatment of the McMichaels too by the police, at the scene of the incident, shows a presumption of innocence of the McMichaels, literally, as Arbery is bleeding to death in the middle of the road. As Arbery lay dying, Travis McMichael allegedly also called Arbery the ‘n’ word.  According to some of Travis McMichael's former schoolmates, it was always a question of when, rather than if, he would end up in a serious incident, with his track record of racism well known.


Now, the McMichaels and Roddy Brian, charged with murdering Arbery, may well yet face jail time.  As well they should,  but that does not mean justice; it represents a small step toward accountability.  Nothing will bring Ahmaud Arbery back to his family.

The sheer audacity of the defence of Arbery's killers during the trial is a throwback to the days of slavery and reminds us how racist thinking in America has consistently survived the test of time.  They have tried to paint Arbery as an aggressive criminal, less than human, and themselves as the defenders of their pristine white neighbourhoods.  They wanted Arbery's mental health records and prior dealings with the police displayed in court.  It did not happen - the judge said they were not relevant - but painting innocent Black men as the aggressor is a classic white supremacist tactic and is not a new phenomenon in the US. 

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people last year during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has according to most people been nothing short of a farce.  The judge has been accused of showing blatant bias favouring Rittenhouse, ruling that those shot dead by Rittenhouse may not be referred to as victims, but are permitted to be described as looters. 

The theatrics in the trial too, apparently to most observers when Rittenhouse feigned tears for the cameras, is something which has drawn widespread condemnation and ridicule, with some saying it made a mockery of proceedings.  The crying by Rittenhouse was unconvincing.  The judge accommodating and allowing the performance was something only someone who looked like Rittenhouse could have gotten away with. Indeed, psychologists may well be picking apart holes in Rittenhouse fake tears for years. In addition to the evidence against Rittenhouse, there is also the fact that he was close to the white supremacist Proud Boys.  The list goes on and on.

Ultimately,  Rittenhouse walked free. Meanwhile, the men who killed and lynched Ahmaud Arbery may indeed face some jail time - we will see.

Many suspect though that if Rittenhouse were Black he would have been shot dead in the street in Kenosha, rather than being thanked, handed a bottle of water by police and allowed to leave.  If Ahmaud Arbery were white while jogging, he would still be alive today.  Who would dispute this?

But, irrespective of these trials,  it is the United States which remains on the global stand with a much wider problem of systemic and violent white supremacy than these two trials indicate.  Assume justice is achieved in these two cases.  What next for America?

Black American descendants of slaves have a special history in America, and they need special layers of legal protection too.  It is not just about making sure that racist killers are jailed, it is about preventing those crimes from happening in the first place and making sure white supremacists know that they will be punished.

"There was a false perception that somehow under Joe Biden, white supremacy in the United States would weaken.  The reality is that this is simply not the case"

In the same way, the Asian-American community were able to see an anti-Asian hate crime bill become law, the same needs to happen for Black Americans.  Calls for an anti-lynching bill too are growing following a spike in suspected lynchings of Black men last year, officially ruled as suicides but which many believe were murders.

The issue of white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement as well is something which the FBI has warned of several times over the last few years, and yet there has been no serious push to deal with the elephant in the room and the obvious crossover between white supremacists and corruption in policing.  In fact, this year, the police were allocated more funding.

There was a false perception that somehow under Joe Biden, white supremacy in the United States would weaken.  The reality is that this is simply not the case.  The president has done many things for lots of groups.  But much like justice needs to be done in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery's killers, justice needs to become a reality for Black America.

Biden stated several weeks ago at the UN in New York that the United States would lead the world in human rights and dignity.  If that is the case, then it needs to begin at home with the protection of human rights and dignity of Black people who built the country.

Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others. 

Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan

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