In 1830s France, Nicholas Chauvin was a wounded soldier who maintained a fanatical devotion to Napoleon long after the emperor’s defeat and exile. Whether historical figure or only a legend, Chauvin became an object of ridicule in a popular French play, and the word chauvinisme evolved, meaning closed-minded dedication to single leader—an absurdly romanticized lost cause. By the early twentieth century, the word “chauvinism” in English became a pejorative term meaning fanatical patriotism and hostility to outsiders. By the 1970s, American feminists deployed the phrase “male chauvinist pig” to decry sexism and misogyny.
It is a grim coincidence that the name of the Minneapolis police officer on trial for murdering George Floyd last spring in an open street, in daytime, happens to be Derek Chauvin. His crime, like so many others, offers a haunting exemplar of American chauvinism for the twenty-first century, a stew of white supremacy, nationalism, and misogyny.
Our Chauvin is no foil on a French stage, no object for smug disdain to make aristocrats feel less racist. His act pulled back the curtain on chauvinism lurking in plain sight, clinging to a frustrated fantasy of the strongman, the white crusader reserving his birthright to kill you when he decides it’s necessary.
People sometimes forget those chauvinist fixations on racial and ethnic “purity” overlap with brittle doctrines of gender roles and sexual “purity.” Consider the twisted rationale of the white Georgia gunman and preacher’s son who murdered eight people in massage parlors, six of them Asian women: he said he wanted to “cure” his “sex addiction.” Also note the Proud Boys and their preoccupation with heterosexuality and rules against masturbation and pornography.
Packaged with racist and nationalist exceptionalism, these denigrating obsessions embody the horror of what Julia Kristeva calls “courtliness and sadism.” Bodies deemed “other” are simply territories to conquer, blame, and dispose of—perhaps while wearing a uniform, sporting a handsome haircut, and using idealistic words.
By the time aggrieved chauvinism flexes its muscle or flashes a weapon to teach all of us the lesson we decline to learn, it has long practiced off-camera: in the grocery checkout line, in the parking lot, the classroom or office, at the dining table and in the bedroom. The voices of any prescient witnesses in such spaces have meanwhile been sidelined, minimized, or never heard at all—perhaps so well-trained to accommodate the continuum of daily threats that they have already been choked into silence.
When a chauvinist wears a badge, among other chauvinists with badges, who will hold him accountable? Records show that Derek Chauvin was a subject of at least 22 complaints in his nineteen years in the Minneapolis police department, which has its own rife history of excessive force accusations. One of the individuals on record is a Black woman who pled for Chauvin not to “kill her.” She also recalled telling the partner who helped Chauvin restrain her ankles, “You’re learning from an animal. That man—that’s evilness right there.”
We now know that Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds—ignoring Floyd’s pleas, ignoring bystanders and dispatchers who attempted to raise the alarm. Chauvin’s sadistic act was a performance recorded by a young girl’s camera and on his own body camera, now visible for the whole world, his face barely breaking any expression as his badge flashed in the sunlight.
People who survive chauvinists in private know how these men split hairs when doing their worst. I didn’t even use a gun, they say. I only did what I was trained to do. How could I be killing anyone on purpose when here I was in the middle of this street? Can’t you see me there? I was just taking a knee. I thought you wanted me to take a knee.
When the footage went viral in late May, after two months of pandemic stay-at-home orders, I wondered immediately who Chauvin expected to return home to that day. Indeed, he was married to a Hmong-American woman who had fled Laos with her family and lived in a refugee camp before migrating to the US. Her first marriage at age 17 was reportedly arranged, ending after ten years of abuse and two children. When she met and married Chauvin, she had been swept away by his gallantry, commenting publicly about how he opened doors for her and was a “softie” under his uniform.
Immediately following the murder, Kellie Chauvin expressed sympathy for Floyd and his family, filed for divorce and a change of name. But as the Hmong woman and mother who had been sheltering in place with Chauvin for sixty days, what else did she recognize or see in that footage?
As yet, there is no record of Chauvin’s violence at home, but we do know that men who commit brutality in public begin their terror behind closed doors. The deadliest mass shootings are often preceded by violence at home, even though these crimes are usually discovered afterward and labeled “secondary” scenes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the New England Journal of Medicine observed that those experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) had even more constrained access to resources and help. Compounding existing inequities, they emphasized, “Black and Brown people, who have long faced oppression and brutality by police, may also be less likely than White people to involve the police when IPV escalates.”
There we have it. Any racial reckoning with law enforcement is incomplete without confronting “bro” culture, especially in a field still organized by blatant motifs of “fraternal order” and “brotherhood.” Studies prior to the pandemic suggested that domestic abuse remains underreported even though it is experienced by 40 percent of police officer families, compared to 10 percent in the general population. However, public outrage over abuse by NFL athletes, many of them Black, is unmatched by calls for reform of violent chauvinism among police.
During the second week of his trial, Chauvin’s attorney cross-examined the police chief who fired him, trying to get the chief to concede that the volatility of officer responses to reports of domestic distress made some violence inevitable. The chief remained unequivocal: Chauvin violated the department’s policy of “sanctity of life and protection of the public.” The chief added that every community member—not just the officer—should be able to go home safely at the end of the day.
Neither the lawyer nor the chief mentioned that all too often the most dangerous weapon of all is the chauvinist who responds to the call, or the chauvinist who already lives inside the house.
by Jo Scott-Coe
Jo Scott-Coe is the author of “Teacher at Point Blank” (Aunt Lute) and most recently, “MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest” (Pelekinesis). MASS received the 2020 silver medal for biography from eLit Awards. She is currently finishing a new book for the University of Texas Press, a life-in-letters of Kathy Leissner Whitman, killed by her husband in private the night before he committed the 1966 UT Austin massacre. Find Scott-Coe on Twitter @joscottcoe on FB @teacheratpointblank and on the web, joscottcoe.com.