Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Racism + Guns

On July 20th, James Eagan Holmes shot and killed 14 people at a movie theater in Aurora, CO. On Sunday, Wade Michael Page killed 6 people at a place of worship in Oak Creek, WI. On their face these incidents seem extremely similar, right? However, the reaction I have seen has been quite different.

When the Aurora shooting occurred my Facebook newsfeed was full of people expressing their sympathy, sadness, and fear. On Sunday...crickets*. When Aurora happened, I couldn't turn on the TV without a constant birage of coverage. Right now? Well Oak Creek made the news on Sunday, and I've seen hardly any follow up since on my local or national news stations. 

So what's the difference? To me, it is pretty clearly racism. The situation on Sunday occurred at a Sikh temple, while the Aurora shooting was in a movie theater. To your average white American, there is not a lot of fear associated with being shot in a Sikh temple. It's not a place they go. "Those people" seem different. Our society has done a pretty good job of othering brown folks to the point that when they get killed many white people literally feel less than when a shooting occurs in a white suburb. We're desensitized to acts of violence against people of color. 

The racist element here is particularly relevant as it is becoming very clear that the gunman in Oak Creek, Wade Michael Page, is a white supremacist. And yet, when visited the front page of the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN and other major news sites right now, this headline is several stories down. I can't believe how quickly the media has moved on from this story.

Fortunately, there are people on the web still saying really relevant things about the Oak Creek shooting. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville:
Page killed alone, and he is accountable for every pull of the trigger. But his crime doesn't exist in a void. It exists in a culture that fetishes violence; in a culture that prioritizes gun ownership over gun safety; in a culture that privileges whiteness; in a culture that privileges Christianity; in a culture which Others the community that he targeted for mass murder.
Rinku Sen at Colorlines:
Only CNN attempted continuous coverage yesterday, and I’m grateful that they tried. Yet that coverage was so generally devoid of Sikh voices that it just reminded me how ill-equipped the media are. The “expert” they turned to most often was the sincere but inadequate Eric Marrapodi of CNN’s Belief Blog. He kept saying that Sikhs were not Muslims, but were often mistaken for Muslims and “unfairly targeted.” The first time he said it, I thought, wow, that’s unfortunate phrasing and he’ll stop using it after he realizes or someone points out the implication that Muslims can be “fairly” targeted. But no one ever got a clue. Islamaphobia was never mentioned, much less condemned for the ignorance and violence that it spreads.
How long before paranoia and fear, recast in the language of moral fortitude (stand your ground!), cut too deeply into the beautiful American friendliness, open-mindedness, and generosity that I have grown up with? How many Trayvon Martins, Brisenia Floreses and Balbir Singh Sodhis must there be before white folks question whether suspicion of brown skin is justified? Must I arm my mother and send her to the shooting range if she wants to wear a sari in public?
These are important questions and I can only hope that people will give them pause. When I wrote about guns after the incident in Aurora, my anger was simply at how accessible guns are and how wide spread violence is. However, as with everything, when you look at the intersection of two cultural problems (here, violence and racism) the situation becomes even more disturbing. Unless and until white culture views brown lives as important as their own, there will be implicit messages that some deaths aren't worthy of our attention.

Is that what we want? Is that who this country is going to continue to be? I hope not. I really do. But it's going to take all of us. As McEwan concluded:
And we are all tasked with prevention. We are all tasked in imagining a culture in which violent fantasies of racial holy wars cannot be and are not considered an eccentric affectation, but a red flag—an unacceptable expression of an intolerable urge.

*I will note my Twitter feed was chock full of the Sikh temple shooting coverage because the people I follow on Twitter are very different from my Facebook "friends."

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