Viewpoint

A double standard on mass shootings

Mayor Joe Riley said the crime was an act of ‘one hateful person,’ but it was much more.
Mayor Joe Riley said the crime was an act of ‘one hateful person,’ but it was much more. TNS

Police are investigating the shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as a hate crime committed by a white man.

But listen to major media outlets and you won’t hear the word “terrorism” used in coverage of last week’s shooting. You won’t hear the white male shooter, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, described as “a possible terrorist.” And if coverage of recent shootings by white suspects is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources. That is the power of whiteness in America.

U.S. media practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans and Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs, motivated by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolfs – Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston already emphasized this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” – violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “No saint either.”

Early news reports on the Charleston shooting followed a similar pattern. Cable news coverage of State Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME, characterized his advocacy work as something that could ruffle feathers. The habit of characterizing black victims as somehow complicit in their own murders continues.

It will be difficult to hold to this corrosive, racist narrative with this shooting. All those who were killed were simply participating in a Wednesday night Bible study. And the shooter’s choice of Emanuel AME was most likely deliberate, given its storied history.

Mayor Riley noted that “The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate.” But we need to take it a step further. There was a message of intimidation behind this shooting, an act that mirrors a history of terrorism against black institutions involved in promoting civil and human rights. The hesitation on the part of some of the media to label the white male killer a terrorist is telling.

This time, I hope that reporters and newscasters will ask the questions that get to the root of acts of racially motivated violence in America. Where did this man learn to hate black people so much? Did he have an allegiance to the Confederate flag that continues to fly over the state house of South Carolina? Was he influenced by right-wing media’s endless portrayals of black Americans as lazy and violent?

I hope the media coverage won’t fall back on the typical narrative ascribed to white male shooters: a lone, disturbed or mentally ill young man failed by society. This is not an act of just “one hateful person.” It is a manifestation of the racial hatred and white supremacy that continues to pervade our society. It should be covered as such. And now that authorities have found their suspect, we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.

Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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