The past week has offered a case study in how race shapes empathy and blame.
Take Mark Anthony Conditt, the 23-year-old who terrorized Austin, Texas, with a series of bombings. After listening to his confession tape, local police have ruled out hate as a motive in a set of attacks that took two lives and injured several others. Conditt’s message, police chief Brian Manley explained, was “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life.” Conditt wasn’t a terrorist—the term we usually affix to people who organize bombings—he was simply lashing out.
Or consider Austin Rollins, the 17-year-old shooter at a school in southern Maryland. He shot two students, one of them his ex-girlfriend, before he was killed. Police say “the shooting was not a random act of violence.” The girl, Jaelynn Willey, was likely the target. Relaying this information, the Associated Press led with a small bit of editorializing: “Tuesday’s school shooting in southern Maryland that left the shooter dead and two students wounded increasingly appears to be the action of a lovesick teenager.” Not an attempted murderer or someone acting on a poisonous amount of masculine entitlement. A lovesick teenager.
Look to last month and even Nikolas Cruz—the teenage gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—was quickly identified as an “orphan” with a “troubled past,” a surprisingly sympathetic way to describe a deadly shooter responsible for one of the worst school massacres in American history. Beyond these recent examples are a litany of times where white suspects of violence are presented as full individuals. “Soft-spoken, polite, a gentleman” is how local media described Elliot Rodger after he killed seven people in a 2014 murder spree near the campus of UC–Santa Barbara.
Now compare this to the now-infamous New York Times story on Michael Brown, described as “no angel” for his occasional delinquency and dabbling in drugs and alcohol. Brown was killed in a confrontation with police. He was unarmed.
To be white, male, and suspected of a serious crime is, in the eyes of police and much of the media, to still be a full individual entitled to respect and dignity. Your actions are treated as an isolated incident, not indicative of a larger pathology shared by others who occupy your social position or hold your religious beliefs. To be black (or to be Muslim or undocumented) is to lose that nuance, even if you’re the victim. After Trayvon Martin’s shooting death at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012, NBC News ran a story announcing one fact: that Martin had been suspended three times from school. In Austin, the same police who could present Mark Anthony Conditt as suffering from angst were, just a week earlier, treating his first victim—a 29-year-old black man named Anthony Stephan House—as a suspect in his own death. “We can’t rule out that Mr. House didn’t construct this himself and accidentally detonate it,” APD Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon told reporters at the time.
A 2017 study commissioned by the advocacy organization Color of Change found that news media consistently portrayed black families and individuals as criminal, with that criminality flowing from the “internal disposition of Black people” versus an “external problem with historic roots.” This is racism, but it’s not the crude hatred of the white supremacist. It’s rather a “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others,” as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has put it. The only way to understand that skepticism is to grasp the ways racism has shaped definitions of personhood and citizenship over the course of 400 years. In particular, it’s important to understand how whiteness—defined as “a status conferring distinct … social, political, and economic freedoms across an unequal property order”—is tied to American ideas around freedom and liberty.
Thomas Jefferson, to use one prominent example, understood the American project as requiring either racial domination of indigenous people and enslaved Africans or their outright removal. “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state,” wrote Jefferson after describing his plan to remove free blacks in the event of emancipation, before answering with a litany of reasons: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” He simply couldn’t imagine an American democracy that wasn’t fully white.
This understanding, that one cannot be black and American—or rather that one must be white to be American—continued into the 19th century and was expressed succinctly by Chief Justice Roger Taney in his Dred Scott opinion. “They are not included and were not intended to be included,” he wrote of black Americans. To the contrary, they are “considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race … and had no rights or privileges but such as those … the Government might choose to grant them.”
Even after emancipation and the Reconstruction amendments granted citizenship and civil rights to the former slaves, the twin engines of capital accumulation and race prejudice drove the creation of a racial caste system, with whiteness distinguishing the bottom from the top. W.E.B DuBois famously called it a “public and psychological wage” that gave “deference” and flattery to whites, in addition to material benefits and opportunities for advancement. In turn, entrance to mainstream society required whiteness or an ability to perform it through assimilation. The nativist panic of the early 20th century—during which the United States barred Asian immigration entirely—reflects both a fear of foreign influence and a belief in America as a white country.
The casting of black Americans as outside the protection of law and the boundaries of citizenship—as inherently criminal and disordered, as a group whose very presence is inimical to republican society—is a constant thread in American life. It’s an elemental part of the American experience that continuously expresses itself, taking on, as scholar George Lipsitz wrote in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, “different forms and serving different social purposes in different eras.” It’s both a legacy of our history and something we re-inscribe through our choices. The housing discrimination, subsidized suburbs, and urban renewal of the mid-20th century turned various European Americans into “whites” who could co-exist and intermarry while also creating the segregation and racial wealth inequality we live with today.
Despite narratives of colorblindness and post-racialism, the United States remains a racial polity, structured, as philosopher Charles Mills writes in The Racial Contract, “to maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites.”
Which brings us back to this question of race and empathy. You no longer need whiteness to vote or participate in civil society (although, given attacks on voting rights, it doesn’t hurt), but it continues to mark boundaries of citizenship and belonging, even if the borders aren’t as firm as they were in the past. There are important exceptions, but looking at the broad sweep of American society, to possess whiteness is still to receive, as one of its benefits, recognition as a full person even in the face of criminal behavior.
When we see a police chief defer to the self-spun narrative of a serial bomber or watch news outlets attribute misogynistic violence to lovesickness—while denying the same interiority and full humanity to black victims or offenders—we’re watching this pattern play out. When black communities are pathologized for facing violence, but white communities escape similar treatment after producing mass killers, we are watching this pattern play out. And when whiteness appears to shift even the usual blame for state violence, we are watching this pattern play out.
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