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Byron Williams: Racial tension is an American franchise
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Byron Williams: Racial tension is an American franchise

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The jury that will decide Kyle Rittenhouse's fate will be allowed to consider some lesser charges in addition to those prosecutors originally brought against him, after fierce debate by both sides on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Rittenhouse, who was 17 when he fatally shot two protesters and wounded a third in August 2020 during a chaotic night of protests in Kenosha over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, testified that he had acted in self-defense. Jurors are expected to begin deliberating Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in the case that has left Americans divided over whether the Illinois teenager was a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness or a vigilante who brought a gun to a protest.

James Bond and Godzilla are among the longest-running movie franchises in film history. There appears to be no end to the escapades of the suave British agent who wants his martinis “shaken, not stirred,” or the giant prehistoric sea monster who has been in dire need of anger management since being awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation in 1954.

But neither Bond nor Godzilla would qualify as America’s longest running sequel. That honor goes to America’s unresolved racial tension.

Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 gave the institution of slavery constitutional protection, the nation has been in moral tension with itself.

America’s long-running series of racial tension has taken on many forms over the centuries. It would, however, be imprudent to suggest America has not changed for the better since its inception. It would also be shortsighted, in my view, to conclude this work is complete. One need only examine the differing perspectives during the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.

On Aug. 25, 2020, amid the unrest following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Rittenhouse, then 17, went from his home in Antioch, Ill., some 33 miles to Kenosha. Under the pretext of defending a car dealership from vandalism, Rittenhouse, using a semi-automatic, assault-style rifle, shot three people, killing two, he claimed in self-defense.

If stupidity and implausibility were capital offenses, Rittenhouse’s defense team would have planned a strategy to spare him from lethal injection. But that was not among the options as Rittenhouse faced a jury of his peers.

The outcome of the trial is not as important as the data point it has created in the American narrative. It was a data point, however, where the verdict in the court of public opinion was rendered before each side in the legal proceedings provided opening remarks.

The Rittenhouse trial is the same hackneyed repetitive melodrama that offers temporary emotional outburst where more people will offer legal analysis than attended law school, let alone passed the bar. And with a lifespan equivalent to the Ephemeral mayflies, it will fade from memory as we await the next inflammatory encounter.

With the grace and dexterity of the average 62-year-old male looking in the mirror convincing himself he looks great in skinny jeans, each side painstakingly sought to make the Rittenhouse trial fit within the contours of their preconceived narrative.

Those in the court of public opinion who already judged Rittenhouse guilty, see the trial itself as the height of absurdity. The historical prima facie evidence offers that had Rittenhouse been a person of color, under the identical circumstances there would not have been a trial. He would not have been given water by law enforcement, sent on his way and allowed to turn himself over to law enforcement in his hometown of Antioch, Ill.

Others see Rittenhouse as a patriot aiding his country, attempting to save businesses, who should have been granted an accommodation rather than indictment.

The recent data point of Tamir Rice is difficult to ignore. In 2014, Rice, a 12-year-old African American, was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer almost immediately after arriving on the scene. Rice was carrying only a replica toy gun.

Fairly or unfairly, the Rittenhouse trial represented to many a level of due process denied to Rice. The historical data points make it difficult to fathom that, had Rittenhouse been a person of color, he would have left the scene alive.

Is something broken in America when one minor could be gunned down unceremoniously while carrying only a toy gun, while the other, armed with an assault rifle, having killed two and injuring one, can be allowed to return to his home some 33 miles away? But to be broken assumes something was damaged or no longer in working order.

The Rittenhouse trial, along with many other incidents that have marred the past two decades, are merely high-profile data points of American brokenness that has been fractured since the nation’s inception. Self-assured certainty is the coin of the realm.

The goal is not to heal the wound but to simply locate the appropriate tourniquet to temporarily stop the bleeding.

As the Rittenhouse trial concludes — the “not guilty” verdicts arrived late Friday — like disciples of the Bond franchise, many will pensively wait for the conclusion of the credits to see the comforting words: America’s unresolved racial tension will return.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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