In Order to Dismantle White Supremacy, We Have to Unpack White Innocence First

Politics Features White Supremacy
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In Order to Dismantle White Supremacy, We Have to Unpack White Innocence First

Depending on who you ask, the tragic back-to-back mass shootings that took place in Dayton and El Paso were either signs of America’s increasingly tattered social fabric or an unsurprising, albeit unfortunate, manifestation of America’s longstanding racist identity. In the days since two shooters opened fire in two separate incidents less than 24 hours apart—one at a Walmart, and the other outside a bar—politicians and analysts have been quick to point the finger at a number of different individuals and entities as the root cause of the shootings.

Trump is an easy person to blame, for instance, given his notoriously anti-immigrant rhetoric and his literal use of words like “infestation” and “murderers” and “rapists” to describe ethnic minorities in the United States. Last Wednesday, Joe Biden delivered a campaign speech in Iowa during which he all but dumped the blame of the weekend’s shootings onto Trump’s shoulders.

“How far is it from Trump’s saying this ‘is an invasion’ to the shooter in El Paso declaring ‘his attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas?’ Not far at all,” the Democratic hopeful said. “In both clear language and in code, the president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation.”

Which makes it all the more frustrating and disjointing that Trump, in a press conference last Monday, said that he condemns “racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” calling the El Paso shooter “wicked” and the Dayton killer a “twisted monster.” Granted, our commander-in-chief was clearly squinting to read the words off a teleprompter, and made the eye-roll-worthy mistake of naming Toledo instead of Dayton when offering up his prayers. But for all intents and purposes, it was a bold, headline-making thing to say, especially given that he had failed to condemn white supremacists following Charlottesville just two short years ago. (And in naming “white supremacy,” he conveniently sidestepped his implication in the rise of white nationalism since his presidency.)

Trump’s use of the hot-button term didn’t have much time to sink in before he then diverted blame and attention to other societal forces, however: the Internet, social media, violent videogames, and “mentally ill monsters.” (Though the Dayton shooter had spoken to friends and loved ones about his struggles with mental illness, the El Paso shooter’s motivations for his rampage are believed to be linked to a four-page extremist manifesto that warned of a “Hispanic invasion”; he drove 600 miles from Allen, Texas, possibly with the intent of targeting as many Hispanic victims as possible.)

“If you look at both of these cases, this is mental illness,” Trump said. “These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill … Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”

The inherently problematic nature of Trump’s statement is easier to pinpoint than Biden’s, but the underlying issue with both men’s finger-pointing is the same: both are attempting to distance themselves from the actual root cause of the shootings, which is not just white supremacy, but its slippery sister, white innocence.

“White innocence is the insistence on the innocence or absence of responsibility of the contemporary white person,” Thomas Ross, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, argues in a paper published in 1990. It’s the reason why Emmett Till’s murderers were found “not guilty” by an all-white jury in 1955; it’s the reason why the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner walked free after their deaths in 2014; it’s the reason why well-meaning white liberals thought it would be a good idea to wear safety pins to signify their wokeness after the 2016 elections; it’s the reason why more white folks than people of color will wring their hands and wonder “how did we get here?” in times of racially motivated violence; and it’s the reason why both Trump and Biden feel fine calling out “white supremacy” as two white men: because by doing so, they’re also insinuating that they themselves are not a part of the problem.

To be clear, I am not equating Biden’s rhetoric with Trump’s. I’m simply noting that the sentiment of “not me, but them,” feels similar. White innocence is corrosive because it is embedded in our government, our institutions, and our cultural attitudes, which exist to protect a certain class and race of people at the expense of others who are not white, male, rich, or otherwise privileged. (Take, for example, Biden’s groan-worthy gaffe last Thursday when he “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”) And those who benefit from the protection of white innocence are usually the ones who are first to shift the blame elsewhere; in Trump’s case, toward videogames, mental illness, and the Internet, and in Biden’s case, toward Trump and his racist rhetoric. The fact of the matter is that white innocence supposes that white supremacy is someone else’s problem (or if you ask Tucker Carlson, it’s not even a problem at all), which is obviously far from true.

White supremacy is our collective problem, because the uncomfortable truth is that our nation is built on white supremacy; if we’re not impacted by it, then we’re implicated in it. As Eddie Glaude Jr., the chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies, said on MSNBC last Monday in a now-viral clip: “America’s not unique in its sins. As a country, we’re not unique in our evils. I think where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. And the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness, to hide and cover and conceal so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence.”

So if we are to actually dismantle the scaffolding of white supremacy that props up our nation in ways both seen and unseen, acknowledged and unacknowledged, we have to reckon with the chipped veneer of innocence that continues to protect white America. Because if we don’t do so, and continue to foist blame upon other people or other factors, then we are failing. We are failing to ask ourselves what part we’ve played in creating the current dystopia we live in. And in turn, we’re failing each other.