Details are still emerging in the case of Kenneth James Gleason, the 23-year-old white Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resident charged with murdering two black men and opening fire on a black family’s house on Sept. 12 and 14. But after Gleason’s neighbor, Nancy Reynolds, described him incredulously as a “clean-cut American kid” to the New York Post, it’s worth noting what many seem bent on forgetting: Racist violence has always been the province of “clean-cut” white Americans. Kenneth Gleason shouldn’t surprise anyone.
One of the more insidious myths in American culture is that racism implies an absence of polish. White poverty and its optics have come to define our popular notions of what a racist looks like. Confederate flag-waving rednecks are more digestible archetypes of bigotry than the nice suburbanite next door.
But this perception ignores history. Clean-cut white racists have been as integral to American inequality over the past 400 years as they are common in recent record. When Gleason allegedly prowled the streets of Baton Rouge, hunting for random black people to kill, he wasn’t just echoing an old legacy. He was mirroring a pattern that’s marked racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and New York City more recently, too.
Apparently, some Americans have forgotten that anti-black racism in the U.S. was first codified by respectable white landowners. In his 1975 book about the early Virginia colonies, American Slavery, American Freedom, historian Edmund S. Morgan explained that rich whites cultivated the myth of innate black inferiority to justify moving from a labor force of indentured white workers to one fueled by enslaved blacks.
Slave ownership itself was for years a marker of American wealth — in 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley’s “cotton kingdom” than anywhere else in the U.S. Decades later, the Ku Klux Klan that thrived during the lynching heyday of the early 20th century was populated by white business owners, doctors and lawyers. Some of the most outspoken segregationists of the Jim Crow era were Southern governors and legislators whose careers rested on appeasing white hostility. They, too, were “clean-cut.” They wore suits and ties to work.
Lately, a wave of media profiles emphasizing the “dapper” nature of white nationalists like Richard Spencer have proliferated. All told, that many of the most prominent racists in U.S. history could accurately be described as “clean-cut” should make the existence of newer, similarly-groomed racists unsurprising.
But this is especially apparent after the hate-fueled activities of manicured young whites this year. The August rally in Charlottesville that saw anti-racist activist Heather Heyer killed featured baby-faced, barbered college kids like Peter Cvjetanovic. When 28-year-old white supremacist James Jackson came to New York City from Maryland in March, he was dressed in what the New York Daily News described as “a dark suit coat, slacks and a button-down shirt.” Photos later captured a smirking Jackson in handcuffs with his hair neatly parted down the side, mere days after he stabbed a 66-year-old black man through the chest with a sword and killed him.
The impulse to separate this kind violence from the optics of “clean-cut” Americana is not new. It reflects a deeper desire to preserve the veneer of white innocence, much like how white terrorism more broadly gets characterized as an aberration rather than a constant in American history.
But like any myth, this notion also helps its adherents avoid reckoning with the truth — that racial violence has been perpetrated by so-called “clean-cut” whites for centuries, and that there’s little evidence to suggest that wouldn’t still be the case. If the murder charges against Gleason bear out, he is part of the rule, not the exception. Surprise is one of the last things Americans should feel.