Skip to content

To Ourselves and Our Posterity: Reflections on the Fourth Square One Roundtable

If the Constitution is the nation’s superego, then white supremacy remains its seething id.

What if you belonged to a race of people with a private army under the command of their fantasies?
Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism

Kyle Rittenhouse arrived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with a single-minded purpose: to protect the innocent. Two hours before he will kill two people and maim another, we see Rittenhouse in a video interview with The Daily Caller, standing guard outside a boarded-up car dealership. “Part of my job,” he intones, “is also to help people. If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.” He is carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, and a medical kit.

Rittenhouse and dozens of other armed white men with guns arrived in Kenosha to answer the call of a citizen’s militia known as the Kenosha Guard. These citizen soldiers aim to protect life and property in the unrest that followed Jacob Blake’s shooting by police. Numerous witnesses say their presence had the opposite effect, heightening tensions. Armed white men take up position outside businesses, menacing protestors. Others aim rifles from makeshift sniper’s nests. Citizen soldiers threaten, cajole, and push, using weapons to intimidate.

In doing so, they enjoy the protection and implicit support of law enforcement. Rittenhouse idolized police officers, posting supportive messages repeatedly on his social media feeds. In the hours before the shooting, officers will thank him and other armed white citizens for their support, handing out water. In the chaos immediately following, police officers speed past an armed Rittenhouse on the way to scene.

Kyle Rittenhouse has been charged with five felonies — including first degree intentional homicide — but that has not stopped him from becoming a cause celebre in certain quarters, held up as tragic figure railroaded by the left. We see photos of Kyle with a group of volunteers, cleaning graffiti from the side of a government building. President Trump asserted that Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense. The president’s son, Don. Jr., agreed. “We all do stupid things at 17,” he entreated.

When I read these words from the younger Trump, my mind went immediately to Travyon Martin, shot dead at 17 by citizen soldier George Zimmerman and immediately vilified in right-wing press. I thought of Don Jr., who claimed the callowness of youth for himself when, at the tender age of 39, he met with Russian nationals who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. And I realized that, despite all that has happened since — the election, and its aftermath; mass protests and counter-protests; deadly plague and wildfire; unjustified killings and names too numerous to list, reaching to heaven — an essential truth remained.

Whatever occurred that night in Kenosha, it could never be Kyle Rittenhouse’s fault.

***

America is in a season of furious discontent. A cascading series of crises — economic, ecological, existential — threaten to overwhelm the nation’s ability to respond. These unprecedented challenges could not have come at a worse time, or under worse leadership. People are deeply divided, fearful, distrustful of our common institutions and disdainful of whatever ties still bind us. The future of our Republic is in peril, by no means assured; this may, in fact, be its moment of maximum danger.

The mass uprisings against police brutality, and for racial equality — the largest demonstrations of their kind in our nation’s history, spread across many countries, creeds and colors — have sparked hopes for a renewed Civil Rights movement. But another mobilization, happening concurrently, should give us pause. Armed white citizens storming state capitol buildings to protest pandemic-related restrictions. Armed white citizens convoying into cities across the country to confront protesters, sometimes violently. White citizens whipped into mass hysteria, deploying conspiracies about pedophilic cabals and Antifa arsonists to justify the increasingly authoritarian actions of the state.

Against this backdrop, the fourth Square One Roundtable convened virtually to review the tattered remnants of America’s social contract, ponder its origins and the sources of its legitimacy, and consider if that contract can be remade.

Professor Danielle Allen’s paper, presented in the livestreamed Roundtable session, offers a framework for understanding our current discord and suggests a way forward. Allen interrogates the principles of alienation and association, and how these inform the elements of our social contract and approach to punishment.

In Allen’s view, the highest purpose of the social contract is to secure justice, as the “right and fair administration of justice is the backbone of legitimacy for any state or political order.” Her definition of justice is expansive, concerning the correction of wrong-doing and the restoration of common bonds:

[J]ustice delivers well-being and supports healthy communities. It embodies and enacts principles of fairness. It successfully addresses the needs of all entangled in an act of wrong-doing — the victim, the wrong-doer, and the community.
Professor Danielle Allen

The principle of alienation resolves conflict through separation. Wrongdoers “violated a social pact linking them to other members of society, and the reciprocal response was to declare them out of the society and out of its protection.” Critical to the success of pervious iterations of the alienation principle was its mutual benefit to both transgressor and transgressed; for wrong-doers, separation brought the possibility of healing and the establishment of new social bonds. Great Britain exiled many of its convicts to faraway colonies, including America, in adherence with the alienation principle, and examples of ostracism stretch back to antiquity.

In Allen’s recounting, the benefits of alienation were negated by the advent of modernity, the close of frontiers and the new era of incarceration during the 19th century. “Rather than being alienated outside the boundaries of the polity,” she writes, “wrong-doers were now to be alienated inside it. Nor did the internal alienation bring with it any compensating benefit. Alienation effected by means of incarceration brings not opportunity but only degradation.” People punished in this way return to the same society as marked individuals, forever outside the civic order looking in. Allen argues that, “Used this way, the principle of alienation does not cure the social contract, by untangling relationships entangled in violence; instead it embeds a broken social contract in the heart of society.”

The principle of association, by contrast, focuses on restoration of social relationships through positive rather than negative interactions. “We can no longer send wrong-doers away from the communities where the wrongs transpired,” Allen maintains. A system of sanctions built on the association principle “recognizes that removal from the community is in itself a sanction, and that time spent in incarceration does not need further elements of penality added to it. Instead, time spent in incarceration needs to be structured to help offenders rebuild positive social relationships.” Criminal justice systems in Norway, Denmark and Germany, which turn to incarceration as a last resort and center the human dignity of incarcerated people, show what association looks like in action. The state and community honor the individual who has committed wrong as a full member of society, and seek to restore him to his previous status.

Allen’s framework is an admirable attempt to effectively identify the sources of dysfunction in our administration of justice, and she rightly points to practices rooted in human dignity and association as a better approach to the problem of criminality. However, the explanatory power of her framework weakens when applied to the upheaval of our current moment. In other words, what should we do about Kyle Rittenhouse and others like him, whose transgressions reify rather than disrupt the social order?

Allen asserts that the “principle of alienation, at the root of penal systems from antiquity through the present day, rather than race, is our fundamental problem.” But this analysis does not hold up to scrutiny. If our practices of alienation are more fundamental than our racial hierarchy, how is it that a white person with a criminal record could have better job prospects than a black person without one? Allen’s argument is that the false hierarchy of race is parasitic on the principle of alienation; in reality, race is essential to understanding the continued primacy of alienation within our social responses.

Allen interrogates the key relational duality between transgressor and transgressed, and how our practices are rooted in antiquity. But another ancient relational duality, that between master and slave, also resonates in our current moment. The relationship between transgressed and transgressor is between two subjects; that of master to slave is a relationship of subject to object. The objectification of the slave is the source of his alienation from society, rather than any discrete act of wrong-doing.

Frank B. Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, released earlier this year, interrogates the relational duality of master and slave as it relates to American society, providing a coherent and devastating theory of race relations. Allen builds her argument on the natural law philosophical precedents that undergird our constitutional legal framework, while Wilderson turns instead to philosophical pessimism and rejects notions of racial progress.

For Wilderson, white supremacy and its photo negative, anti-blackness constitute this nation’s true social contract. “Despite the fact that the sadism is no longer played out in the open as it was in 1840,” he writes, “nothing essential has changed.”

The essential relational paradigm of the United States, according to Wilderson, is slavery. Black people stand outside of civil society and the laws that govern it, permanently alienated from the blessings of liberty. “For [black people], civil society has always been a juggernaut of violence,” he argues. “Civil society has never been a terrain characterized by consent as opposed to coercion…. On the contrary, violence without sanctuary is the sine qua non of Blackness.”

If our Constitution is the nation’s superego, then white supremacy is its seething id. White supremacy demands white license; justifies white violence; and protects, above all, white innocence. We see it in the streets: behavior that, if exhibited and distributed broadly across any other population in the United States, would prompt at least a national commission. It seems pathology is projection.

We are living through a season that began with Amy Cooper, and her rage at being corrected — denied the absolute license to do whatever she wanted, by a black man. A season that saw outrageous outbursts over being asked to wear a mask in public, open defiance of every conceivable public health protocol in response to COVID. Why, white supremacy asks, should the majority be inconvenienced by a plague for the black, poor, old and sick?

White violence is both the matter at hand and an ever-present threat. And not just the violence enacted by agents of the state with the consent of the white majority; the number one domestic terrorism threat in the United States today is white supremacy. White violence, whether at the hands of police or the everyman cosplaying as soldier, is fundamentally legitimate. Its obverse, the threat of black violence, is the source of its legitimacy. When a black man reaches for his waistband, we deem any amount of force necessary. When the president throws the peaceful transfer of power into question, we wonder if he might be serious. 

A mural of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

But perhaps more galling than the violence is the insistence on white innocence. Kyle Rittenhouse is a prime example, but the tragic death of Breonna Taylor is illustrative as well. Taylor, a full-time ER technician, was an actual innocent. Neither she nor her boyfriend were directly implicated in the underlying drug crimes the police were investigating when they executed a no-knock warrant on her home shortly after midnight. Taylor’s boyfriend, fearing intruders, fired a single shot; the officers returned 32 rounds, six of which struck and killed Taylor.

The authorities have charged one of the three officers involved with wanton endangerment — though not for killing Taylor. As Wilderson writes, black people are “a species of sentient beings than cannot be injured or murdered for that matter, because we are dead to the world.” An officer was charged for the errant bullets that could have posed a danger to Taylor’s neighbors, not for the bullets that met their target. What does it say about our social contract that a grand jury — which, as the saying goes, “would indict a ham sandwich” — would not secure justice for Breonna?

Crucially, Wilderson see all of this as a feature, not a bug; “[I]f the United States of America were to somehow not be anti-Black — then we would no longer have a country; the United States of America would cease to exist…. No anti-Blackness, no nation.”

Wilderson’s argument feels hopeless and totalizing, his conclusions shattering in their implications. But what part of it rings false? And if it is true, then what does justice require?