Individual Guilt, or No (Non-White) Man is an Island

15 07 2015

There’s a frustrating trend in the reporting and discussion of recent events that I’d like to point out (though many far smarter than me already have done so, so I’m just being self-indulgent). It’s “frustrating” to me, a white man, so I can only imagine it’s something orders of magnitude worse – galling, horrifying, infuriating, soul-crushing? – to people of color. It is the way we look at crimes and perpetrators. Those committed by white people are the tragic acts of mentally ill loners, while those committed by people of color (or even those committed against people of color) are clear indications of how communities of color need to change their behavior.

What the hell?

You don’t have to dig far to see this in action. The jury has just begun deliberation in the case against James Holmes, who killed 12 people at a theater in Colorado. In all of the discussion of the event, his motives, his methods, and his sanity, we haven’t seen any calls for the white community to step up and rein in their wayward sons. Similarly, when Adam Lanza killed 27 people and then himself, there was no discussion of the fact that his mother had provided him with ready access to guns. I don’t mean to suggest that her death was her fault, but it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the story would have been presented differently had Lanza been black and had killed his mother with a gun she had given him. Dylann Roof explicitly declared his murderous rampage as ideologically driven, but certain elements in the news media have bent over backwards to paint it as driven by something entirely different – Fox & Friends tried to paint it as an anti-Christian attack, and while more responsible news outlets have focused some on the sites that informed his worldview, there has been little discussion of an epidemic of radicalized white youth, or of the impact of chronic un- and under-employment in the white community, or any of the other garbage that gets churned up in the wake of crimes involving people of color.

Remember that Fox News has been intensely focused on the recent murder of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant. While this crime is awful and senseless and tragic, the timing, rather than the facts, are all they seem to care about. In their view, the fact that someone was murdered by an immigrant validates Donald Trump’s recent racist nonsense. The killer isn’t just an individual criminal, he’s a symbol of the vast hordes of depraved killers coming over our borders. Except, of course, he’s not – studies of incarceration and crime rates have consistently shown that immigrants, legal and illegal, commit crimes at rates substantially lower than the native-born population. Had Steinle been killed by a white American, we’d never hear about it. It’s only as a parable of the menacing other that Fox News has any use for it. Francisco Sanchez can’t just be himself, an individual – he has to be a symbol of all illegal immigrants.

What’s perhaps worst about this is that it works both ways. It’s not just an issue of conflating an individual’s actions with the supposed actions of a larger group – it’s also the willful ignorance of things that are clearly linked. Voices on the political right are furious that President Obama hasn’t sent the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate Steinle’s death, and that he hasn’t even called her parents despite sending staffers to funerals for black men killed by police. Again, I don’t want to diminish the tragedy of Steinle’s death at all, but it was a random act of a criminal, not yet another instance of imbalanced police response to an unarmed black man. A random occurrence should not be treated the same as a pervasive pattern. Acting as though it should serves to minimize and even deny the pattern. People are murdered all the time in this country. It’s awful and it’s wrong and we should do everything we can to stop it, but those random murders are simply not the same as a consistent, near-constant stream of unarmed people of the same race dead at the hands of the police.

Of course, there’s another link between Lanza, Holmes, Roof, and probably even Sanchez that’s going unaddressed – they all had easy access to guns. When the mentally ill (Lanza, Holmes) and racist (Roof) kill many people, Fox News and the right say that it’s wrong to politicize the situation by calling attention to the guns, but when a career criminal kills a single person, they can’t politicize it quickly or loudly enough. If it’s disrespectful to the memories and families in mourning for Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Charleston, then what is it to Steinle’s family? And why isn’t that common thread, the access to guns, part of the discussion?

I don’t think there’s an answer to those questions that doesn’t boil down to selective ignorance and racism.

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