[W]hich acts of violence are considered legitimate self-defense has always been highly political. For most of American history, white men alone had a right of self-defense that included both their persons and property. Although the concept of armed self-defense is not inherently racist in the abstract—many 1960s civil-rights figures bore arms when not protesting—in practice the American legal system has tended to see certain claims of self-defense as more legitimate than others.
“Our embrace of lethal self-defense has always been selective and partial,” Light argues, “upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets.”
[George] Zimmerman had a right to defend himself; his supporters could see [Trayvon] Martin only as the sort of person the right of self-defense was meant to be invoked against. In Georgia, Travis McMichael, on trial for murder after he, his father, and a friend chased Ahmaud Arbery through their neighborhood, before pulling guns on him, has similarly sought to justify his actions as self-defense.
“It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would’ve got the shotgun from me, then it was a life or death situation,” McMichael testified. “And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.” Even the white nationalists facing a civil lawsuit over their 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, have sought to invoke their right to self-defense.
There is a paradox of fragility here, in which a moment of fear—perhaps one imbuing the deceased with supernatural strength—is invoked to justify homicide, and the dead who would be alive but for this moment of terror subsequently become a symbol of the frightened man’s valor.
At a certain point the logic of this sort of “self-defense” becomes indistinguishable from a custom that simply allows certain people to get away with murder. This is the legal regime that a powerful minority of gun-rights advocates have built—one in which Americans are encouraged to settle their differences with lethal force, preferably leaving as few witnesses capable of testimony as possible.
— Adam Serwer in Of Course Kyle Rittenhouse Was Acquitted