J.D. Vance’s Empathy for Kyle Rittenhouse Is Revolting
Calling a killer a “baby boy” is a neat trick for gesturing at the ways white lives matter to people like him, and Black lives do not.
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might be forgiven for mistaking the latest Twitter thread from newly converted Trump worshipper and flailing Senate candidate J.D. Vance for a compassionate, if woefully misguided, defense of the country’s most vulnerable.
“We leave our boys without fathers,” the Hillbilly Elegy writer and Peter Thiel protege said in a tweet. “We let the wolves set fire to their communities. And when human nature tells them to go and defend what no one else is defending, we bring the full weight of the state and the global monopolists against them.”
Vance could have been empathizing with Black and brown kids in underserved neighborhoods who, multiple studies show, respond to the psychological strain of over-policing by acting out. He could have been emphasizing the humanity of Black parents disproportionately criminalized by a racist justice system that takes them away from their children and communities. He could have been noting that those involved in community uprisings against police abuse and political repression often face harm from state-backed agents willing to use any violent means necessary to disempower them.
But Vance wasn’t talking about any of those people or things. He was empathizing with Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 18-year-old currently on trial for intentional homicide after fatally gunning down Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber last summer and on charges of criminal violence related to his shooting that same night of a third person, Gaige Grosskreutz.
Vance has no empathy to spare for the Kenosha, Wisconsin, residents who live with the consistent low-grade terror of racialized police violence—as manifest in the seven point-blank shots fired by Officer Rusten Sheskey into Jacob Blake, leaving him paralyzed, and which catalyzed anti-racist protests in the city. Those residents, sneers Vance, were “lawless thugs” trying to destroy Rittenhouse’s “community.” It is a blatant statement of support for racist foot soldiers and a justification of whatever violence they inflict.
Rittenhouse menacingly entered a protest crowd wielding an illegal semiautomatic weapon he thought “looked cool,” shot three men including two from the community he invaded, and later claimed self-defense despite being the “only person who killed anyone” among hundreds of others who were out that night in Kenosha. Hours after entering entering his not guilty plea, Rittenhouse, who is not old enough to legally drink without his complicit mom by his side, went to a bar and took pictures with fascist Proud Boys while flashing white power symbols and wearing a shirt that read “FREE AS FUCK.”
That young man is who Vance labels a heroic “baby boy,” and whose murderous actions he suggests “patriots” should defend and potentially follow. Just after Rittenhouse’s testimony—during which he appeared too choked up to speak, even as his face remained tear-free—Fox personality Jeanine Pirro called him “a good kid… who can grow up and have a moral core.” (She’d previously described Rittenhouse as “an innocent man, he’s looking to help, he’s all-American, and he’s trying to just make sure his town is safe.”) Tucker Carlson has said Rittenhouse “had to maintain order when no one else would.”
Hearing right-wing boosters attribute innocence and purity of motive to Rittenhouse, it’s hard not to recognize how those things are consistently denied to Black kids. In states where rightwing perversions of critical race theory have been turned into bans on the teaching of slavery, anti-Black racism, and the legacies of white American supremacy, the argument that history will make victims of white children prevails. The eight states that now legally prohibit a warped version of CRT in classrooms are attempting to ban any lesson that might make white kids feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish and any other form of psychological distress”—painting white children as the potential victims of truthful corrections to America’s whitewashed historical memory. School board members in Virginia are suggesting book-burning and bookshelves are being purged in Kansas to protect white kids’ inherent innocence.
When CBS asks “How young is too young to learn about racism?” they must know that Black kids learn firsthand about racism without being asked if the timing is convenient, a privilege extended to choosy white parents.
That courtesy is not provided to Black kids who, studies show, have a “25 percent jump in their likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental illness” because of racial discrimination. Black boys, and especially girls, whose suicide rates are currently increasing—and who now “are about twice as likely to die by suicide as white children of the same age”—do not get the benefits of victimhood conferred on their white peers.
The adults like Vance who somehow find a “baby boy” with a “moral core” in a young white man who needlessly shot three people, killing two of them, have no capacity for empathy when it comes to Black kids and young adults.
It’s a lethal blind spot. Isabella Tichenor, a 10-year-old autistic Black girl so cruelly bullied by her Utah classmates that she committed suicide, was insufficiently capable of being seen as a victim by white school officials who reportedly refused to intervene in response to her pleas.
Black children are far more likely to be punished with expulsion and suspension by school administrators who too often can only view them as perpetrators. America’s criminal justice system disproportionately tries Black kids as adults and sentences them to time behind bars, while letting kids like Rittenhouse go free. And study after study finds that Black kids are seen as angrier by teachers, as less innocent by cops (like the one who told Rittenhouse he was “appreciated,” later bypassing him after he’d killed two people), and as incapable of experiencing the same physical pain as white kids by doctors. The adultification of Black kids steals any notion of their victimhood away.
The word “victim” is also what three white killers asked a Georgia court not to use in reference to Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black jogger they boasted of having “trapped like a rat” before shooting him dead in the street. But while the judge in the case rightly rejected that appeal, a seemingly sympathetic court has agreed to Rittenhouse’s demand that the word “victim” not be used to describe the people Rittenhouse fatally shot. The term “looter” was sanctioned instead.
“I think our people hate the right people,” Vance said in a recent interview. Whether said out of political expediency or not, the impact of Vance’s words is the same. He is being transparent about who deserves to be regarded as a full person, whose basic humanity cannot be questioned, whose decency remains intact despite their struggles and foibles—and whose does not.
That idea is repeated in the words of Josh Hawley, who while literally claiming he was not saying men are victims, declared men victims of modern society; or Paul Gosar, who retweeted a video of himself killing of a congresswoman of color months after he called for the head of the officer who shot white Capitol insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt; or Tucker Carlson, who once suggested George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Black deserved what they got, but remains adamant in his defense of a white kid who killed two people.
These people are just saying the quiet part out loud—louder and louder, and again and again.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that a claim that Rittenhouse traveled with his mother was incorrect.