My last blog (“The Innocent American is the Violent American”) offered some ways into looking at the violence at the core of our history and mythology. I believe that we have to keep talking about these questions before the issues fade from the media, or at least until the next mass shooting, as difficult as it may be. Here, I have three new points to discuss.
1 – A loss of innocence? Yes, we have seen the predictable articles about how America has lost its innocence now, the same kinds of articles we see after each national tragedy. At times like this, I am always reminded of my own reaction to yet another film about the Holocaust: I just can’t believe that people could do such things.
Buy why can’t I – we – accept the existence of such capabilities within us even after regular reminders? Because our retreat into disbelief is a marker of our deep need to reaffirm our innocence. If evil is out there, or restricted to lone, deranged individuals, then neither we nor our society need to own any darkness. We can, as Brecht wrote, “…divide up those in darkness from the ones who walk in light…”
Here is the essence of our national condition. Because our identity as white Americans is so bound up in innocence and purity, our sense of ourselves is like a self-inflating tire. Each time our innocence is punctured, it soon closes back up and returns to its prior state. So next time, and each time, it is called into question, we feel emotionally shocked, as if were the first time. Then we retreat once again into innocence.
2 – Not thinking about race. This is very hard, but we have to go here. Why haven’t Americans been grieving continually for the sixty-five Palestinian children killed with American weapons in Gaza attacks, or for the long list of innocent Black and Latino teenagers murdered by police in the past year, or for the innocent bystanders killed by stray bullets every week in our cities? In 2010, nearly 700 children were shot in Chicago alone, sixty-six of them fatally.
Our collective mourning for the children of Sandy Hook is appropriate. Indeed, anything that rocks our world and loosens one of the gates of grief can open the other gates as well, and we can be thrown into the emotional work we have put off for so long.
But this happened in Sandy Hook, in the suburbs. The white suburbs. Of the twenty-six deaths, one was a non-white child whose family had just moved there. What — we must ask ourselves — would be our reaction had this tragedy occurred in an inner city school and most of the victims had been black and Latino?
What does it mean after events like these when local people express a familiar tone of disturbed innocence, directly or not: We never thought it could happen here! The statement implies a familiarity with American violence that happens elsewhere, which in the media mind is the inner cities. And not just the media mind, but ours. When psychologists ask people to picture a violent criminal, ninety-five percent of us picture a black man, even though blacks and whites commit crimes at similar rates.
Tim Wise writes of the pathologies of privilege:
…This is a nice, safe place, which of course was the same thing said about Springfield, Oregon, Pearl, Mississippi, Littleton and Aurora, Colorado, Moses Lake, Washington, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Santee, California, Edinboro, Pennsylvania, Paduchah, Kentucky, and pretty much every one of the dozens of places where the things that never happen appear to happen regularly enough to constitute something well North of never… I don’t mean to be callous, and indeed I have shed plenty of tears for the families in Newtown, as I do every time one of these massacres takes place, and as I sadly know I will again. But Goddammit, it is the denial, the cocoon-like innocence of the bleary-eyed denizens of these communities that drives me to distraction. Precisely because I do care, and I know that that very innocence — which now for the umpteenth time we get to hear has been shattered — is more than just maddening, and far more than an academic point. It actually helps to make these kinds of gut-wrenching catastrophes more likely…
Neither Wise nor I are accusing anyone of blatant racism. We are suggesting that our sense of white privilege is so deeply ingrained as to be utterly unconscious. It appears that many of us can allow the terrifying reality of the violence that we perpetrate and condone everywhere else into awareness only when those we might identify with actually become victimized.
3 – Thinking about race – again. What if the shooter had been a Muslim or a black man? It’s easy to picture the media frenzy and the calls for racial and religious profiling. But a white man did this – as usual. Indeed, of some sixty-two mass shootings in America since 1982 – that’s one every five months – forty-four were committed by white men. Despite the national anxiety over violent black men, mass murders are white phenomena.
Hugo Schwyzer writes:
Not every mass murder in recent years has been committed by a middle-class white guy. But…in those rare instances where a man of color is responsible for a shooting spree…the popular reaction is to search for connections between the race or religion of the murderer and his act. After Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people in Blacksburg, media attention focussed on the likelihood that a Korean culture unwilling to acknowledge mental illness helped drive the young man to commit the worst mass murder in U.S. history. After Major Nidal Hasan carried out the Fort Hood shootings, his Muslim faith became all the public needed to know about his motive…The difference…is that when white men commit mass murder we don’t hear how their skin color, their maleness, or their social class were contributing factors to their acts…we see whites as individuals whose moral state reflects their individual will. In other words, white men kill simply because they are “sick” or “evil.” When men of color murder, it is because they are both those things and because of factors uniquely attributable to their race.
David Sirota, acknowledging these truths, asks whether it is “Time to Profile White Men?”
In this mythology, the white man as a single demographic subgroup can never be seen as a perpetrator and must always be portrayed as the unfairly persecuted scapegoat. In this mythology, to even reference an undeniable truth about how white privilege operates on a political level (in this case, to prevent a government profiling system of potential security threats even though such a system exists for other groups) is to be guilty of both ‘injecting divisive racial politics’ and somehow painting one’s opponents as racist…
This is a profoundly important issue, because to understand it is to realize how deeply all of these American themes are intertwined: race, violence, empire, masculinity, misogyny, victimization, privilege and innocence.
Next blog: The Weeping Obama