Most writers are familiar with the common forms of past tense such as the past simple, past continuous, and past perfect. But what about the increasingly popular past exonerative tense to uphold white supremacy?

Questions to ask before using the past exonerative tense

  • Is someone in a position of power responsible for wrongdoing?
  • Has a marginalized person or group of people suffered from the act of wrongdoing?
  • Has a police officer killed a Black man or woman?

If the answer to any of the above questions was yes, it’s time to use the past exonerative tense to uphold white supremacy.

But before we get into the nuts and bolts of the past exonerative tense, let’s take a moment to learn about the history of this useful grammatical form. The term “past exonerative tense” was first coined by political analyst William Schneider to describe a construction used by political leaders, which enabled them to acknowledge wrongdoing while absolving themselves of responsibility. Ronald Reagan is thought to be the first American president to employ the past exonerative tense during the Iran-Contra scandal, using a variation of the “mistakes were made” non-apology.

As useful as this tense is to presidents, the past exonerative tense has become an instrumental verb form used by journalists and editors who consciously or unconsciously wish to uphold the system of white supremacy championed by the nation’s founders. While there are multiple means of upholding this system  —  such as states’ rights, segregation, redlining, gerrymandering, voter suppression, racial quotas, mass incarceration, and terrorism  police brutality, a cornerstone of white supremacy, can only be maintained by white people’s continued complicity. For journalists, this complicity is expressed with the usage of the past exonerative tense.

What does the past exonerative tense do?

The past exonerative tense transforms acts of police brutality against Black people into neutral events in which Black people have been accidentally harmed or killed as part of a vague incident where police were present-ish.

Examples of Usage

“Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis tweeted Tuesday afternoon that 4 officers involved in the arrest of a man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee had been fired.” (SOURCE)

This classic example of past exonerative tense muddles the events so convincingly that it seems that no one person is responsible for the killing of George Floyd, that the officers were chiefly involved with an arrest rather than a murder, and that knees are sentient, independent entities.

“Minnesota authorities say the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck has been arrested.” (SOURCE)

In this instance, the use of the word “knelt,” together with the absence of the verbs “killed” or “murdered” give the impression that the only action taken by the police officer who killed George Floyd was kneeling.

“Before he died after being pinned for minutes beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, George Floyd was suffering the same fate as millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic: out of work and looking for a new job.” (SOURCE)

In this usage, the victim died “after being pinned for minutes beneath a… knee,” suggesting that George Floyd may have even played an active role in his own death by “being pinned.”

“Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck while Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, is in custody. Charges haven’t yet been announced.” (SOURCE)

While this account correctly describes the events, it leaves out the part where the police officer killed George Floyd.

For more examples of using the past exonerative tense to uphold white supremacy, go here, here, here, here, and here. Also of note: the past exonerative tense has been useful in upholding the system of male supremacy as well.

Finally, If you’re having trouble converting an active past tense verb such us, “A police officer in Minneapolis choked a man to death” into the past exonerative tense to uphold white supremacy, this interactive guide, written after a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, should be helpful.