Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Collateral Damage of Racism

My heart is so heavy today as I write.  I have debated whether or not to write this because I know that to some, it might come off as insensitive, which is not my intent.  This disclaimer is to say that I am crying about the babies and adults that were killed yesterday.  They didn't deserve it.  It was not God's will or judgement on America, as some theologians have already put forward.  It was evil.  Pure evil.

Having said all that, I think that there is an elephant in the room when it comes to these kinds of tragedies, and we need to talk about it.  Because I believe what happened yesterday was a consequence of racism in our nation. Allow me to explain what I mean.

I listened to the news on NPR yesterday as soon as I saw the headline on social media.  I scoured the articles on the Internet.  I watched the news on television, which I don't normally do.  I wanted to know, like many people, how and why such a thing could happen.  I wanted to make sense of it.  The host of the radio program was asking a psychologist if there was a psychological profile for these types of criminals who perpetrate these mass murders.  The psychologist said that there was, but the tricky thing is that not all people who fit that description end up committing this type of crime.  And most of the time, people don't realize the "red flags" until after the fact.  As the conversation continued, I was listening for one other piece of information: the racial identity of the shooter.

I have started to listen for "race" in the news, when it shows up in discourse and when it doesn't.  For example, on the nightly news in St. Louis, I don't normally hear direct references to racial identifications, but there are certain "code words" that the newscasters use to let you know who they are talking about (e.g. neighborhood, street names, physical descriptions, names).  Like most people, I have become accustomed to processing the news in racialized ways.  In the case of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, I listened and listened.  Not one time did I hear the perpetrator described in racialized terms.  I remember thinking, "They haven't said--I bet he was White."  And so again yesterday, I listened and listened, but never heard once anything to indicate that 1) the perpetrator was White or 2) that the town affected was predominantly White.  So when the radio program host kept pushing the psychologist for a "profile" of "these types" of mass killers, I wanted to shout, "White males! Look for White males!" as if they could hear me and start the hunt right away. 

Now hear me when I say, I am not hating on White males.  I have many White men in my life, including a wonderful husband, sons, and brothers.  What I am saying is that statistically, the majority of mass murderers, serial killers and sex offenders are White men.  Are all White men criminals?  Of course not.  But when you go to check my facts (and I hope you do), it should become clear that there is a racial profile for "these types" of criminals.  In a country where Black and Brown men, along with anyone who looks like they might be from the Middle East, are consistently racially profiled, it is indicative that the very profile we should be on the look-out for is the one we never admit or say out loud: White men.  

The collateral damage of racism plays out like this:

White folks have been socialized to fear Black men.  White towns have fought long and hard to keep Black and Brown folks out (search the term "sundown towns" for more info).  The result is that many small towns and municipalities are currently all White, while people of color are primarily forced into urban areas.  And in these White spaces, there is a sense of security because the "undesirables," the people to be feared, have been kept out.  On the other hand, if you talk about living in an urban area, you will hear White folks talk more about issues of safety.

The governor of Connecticut attempted to give words of comfort to the town of Newtown yesterday.  He said that this was not preventable.  He said, "Today, evil had visited this town."  My reply: Evil was already living in your town.  He lived in a house in your town and had access to guns. Lots of guns.

Initially, I wanted to avoid the issue of gun control, because I thought it was a side issue, although related.  I leaned more towards increased school security, which I still advocate.  But we can't address one without the other, addressing the symptom without first analyzing the disease.

You might think me a conspiracy theorist at this point, but the whole issue of "right to carry" is also deeply connected to a racist system.  First, it is and has always been easier for White people to obtain gun permits than it is for people of color. Throughout most of our history, it was illegal for Black and Brown people to own guns, except during wartime.  Even when it was legal, Black people were seriously prohibited from owning firearms.  Secondly, much of our current White "gun culture" has to do with White militias that were historically allowed to form in order to either hunt Black slaves or just parade around in order to keep the Black population "subdued."  So the argument for the "right to carry" has everything to do with White privilege and the right to form a militia. 

That's why I'm saying this is a consequence of not talking about the effects of racism on White people.  We can notice trends of who these criminals are--White males--and what kinds weapons they use--primarily obtained legally--but we don't.

And while the victims of these crimes are diverse, when the shootings happen in schools, we can notice that they primarily happen at White schools.  But we don't.  

And by "we" I mean us White folk.  Because if a whole town feels secure because "it's just us White people," and everybody owns guns legally, then there is no heightened sense of awareness of possible predators. 

I have been told that there is running line within the Black community that goes something like this: "When our kids bring a gun to school, they might kill somebody on accident.  When a White kid bring guns to school, he kills everybody on purpose."  I don't think this is said with a disregard for the lives of White children, but it does point to a skewed view of reality that White folks would fear a Black man more than a White man.  And it highlights the fact that Black folks have always feared White men for very substantiated reasons. 

Let me say again that this news is devastating.  Heartbreaking.  I hugged my White babies a little closer to me last night and prayed for comfort for the town in Connecticut. I can't read the news updates without crying. But I was also angry.  Angry that people would say that this is an "isolated" event, that schools are safe places, and that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it.  As a parent, I am not swallowing those answers.   

Because if something happens to my child, I want to know how it could have been prevented.  

Mass killings are not isolated events--they happen frequently.  The psychologist on NPR (and other sources) reported that mass killings have not increased in recent years.  The number of deaths has remained steady, but certain events have been more high profile because of the number of victims and the public nature of the crime scenes (e.g. movie theater, school).

Schools are not safe places--not in Black neighborhoods, not in White neighborhoods, not in integrated neighborhoods--unless we make them safe.  In many urban neighborhoods, there are metal detectors installed at the front door with a taser-carrying security guard looking on. Police officers routinely patrol the area around the school.  In some ways, this could be part of the impact of the stereotyping of Black and Brown youth.  However, in hearing from Black administrators and teachers in the wake of this recent tragedy, I think the security measures are largely in place because Black communities, unlike the governor of Connecticut, are not surprised about evil.  They know that there are people who would try to hurt them and their children.  They don't live with a false sense of security because they have never been afforded that luxury. 

Finally, this type of tragedy must be preventable.  To start, I believe White folks need to have the tough conversation about the false sense of security and entitlement that we feel in our White communities. We need to talk about gun control and question why White folks feel entitled to carry a concealed automatic weapon.

If we continue to ignore the elephant in the room, ignore the collateral damage of racism, these types of incidents will continue to happen.  But for today, I agree with the prayer that the President prayed, that God would heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.