The vast majority of mass shootings in this country are committed by white men, yet the stereotype of the angry, violent white male has virtually no pull on the social standing or political power of the white male collective. Disgruntled white men are almost unanimously recognized as the face of maniacs killing at random, yet whenever there’s a new tragedy, it’s we black and brown people who rush frantically to Google, hoping the shooter doesn’t look like us.
After the news broke, I, along with millions of other black folks and people of color, felt that all-too-familiar anxiety. It’s a discomfort white people have no real frame of reference for, making it easy for them to write it off as racial paranoia. But it’s real for us who fit outside the default for cultural and social normalcy. If a white person commits a crime, no one suggests that white people in general are criminally inclined, or that the crime says something larger about whiteness. Obviously, the same cannot be said for black people.
Our relief that we don’t resemble the killer comes with feelings of conflict and guilt: People are dead and families are devastated. I doubt many people of color were celebrating and high-fiving each other because we didn’t look like the bad guy. But I know that if the shooter had been black, the national conversation would somehow “straw-man” its way into being about Black Lives Matter and black criminality. God help us if it had happened at a rap concert. “Black-on-black crime” would’ve been on the tongues of every demagogue blowhard with a platform, and black athletes wouldn’t be able to kneel in protest of police brutality again without having a massacre thrown in their faces. (In fact, Fox News managed to get in a swipe at black NFL players anyway.)
If he had been Hispanic, it would be the reason “we can’t let these people in our country.” Whether he was actually an illegal immigrant would’ve been obfuscated into irrelevancy within the first day of reporting, as pundits bleated about massive deportation and building walls (logistics not included).
If the shooter was Middle Eastern or Muslim, the rhetoric would pretty much write itself at this point. President Trump could add half the Middle East to his travel ban list and justify it through 24-hour news coverage of fleeing survivors. It wouldn’t matter if the killer was a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Vegas or if there were no ties found to any known terrorist organization. I doubt he’d be granted a descriptor with a positive connotation like “lone wolf,” as if he were the protagonist in a classic Western; I doubt any editor would find that term appropriate.
But white people don’t need to fear their movements for justice being undermined or the whole of their demographic feeling the pressure to answer for the crimes of a few. They may have to endure a couple weeks of anti-white nationalist think pieces (which they’re free to ignore) showing up in their news feeds when someone gets killed at a Nazi rally, but their very existence will never be viewed as a threat. They don’t rush to their search engines after breaking news of a mass killing to make sure the assailant isn’t white. And when he so often is, they face no persecution as a result.
Even the fact that so many news outlets are calling what happened in Las Vegas “the deadliest shooting in U.S. history” goes to show how much race is embedded in our responses to crime. These outlets overlook the deadliest massacres in this country’s history, which all involved black victims: the havoc brought down in Tulsa in 1921 (300 murdered by a white mob); in Phillips County, Ark., in 1919 (an estimated 100-237 lynched); in Colfax, La., (150 killed); and many more atrocities where black victims were slaughtered by white psychopaths.
Even immortalizing the Vegas shooting by naming it the deadliest we’ve ever seen won’t stop white terrorism from being treated as more than anecdotal and isolated. If the shootings at Sandy Hook and Charleston have shown us anything, it’s that even the most heinous crimes imaginable, when committed by members of the white majority, don’t inspire much of a lasting sense of urgency. We don’t militarize airports and ban entire populations from U.S. entry the way we do after even a whiff of “Islamic terrorism.” We don’t enact preventive measures. We don’t seem to do much at all.
What I know is that on Monday, I found out that innocent people died, and I felt relief. It didn’t feel good, but I felt free in the way the white majority — the default — gets to feel naturally, regardless of what color the shooter is.
This is why it’s always about race. Even when it’s not.