I’ve spent the past few days thinking a lot about the shooting in Charleston. While as a white person I think there are more important voices than mine to be heard on this subject, and I will link to some of them, I also decided that one more voice calling out structural racism is never a bad thing.
One of the first things I noticed when reading the media coverage of this shooting was that before the shooter was even definitely identified- when he was just a white male suspect- commentators were already wondering if he was mentally ill. Contrast this with the way non-white victims of white violence are described as thugs, criminals, or – my favorite – simply as “no angels.”
This hypocrisy shows that our society continues to have very clearly defined narratives that determine who is a victim and who is not, and these roles are assigned based on race.
But there are several other reasons this reference to the shooter’s alleged mental illness is a problem.
One is that overwhelmingly, people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of abuse and violence than its perpetrators. Even in cases where they do act out violently, they are much more likely to engage in self-harm than to attack others.
That is not to necessarily say that the Charleston shooter did not have a mental illness. I’m not a medical professional, nor have I ever met this man, so obviously I cannot diagnose him or prove that he did not have any mental health issues. It is to say that even if he was mentally ill, that is not what caused him to carry out this attack.
In fact, the shooter has told us repeatedly exactly what did motivate him to commit mass murder against a peaceful group of black people who welcomed him to pray with them. He said it in a statement to police and apparently in a manifesto written prior to the attack.
He was racist, and his fear of and hatred for black people and the threat he convinced himself they posed to his idealized white supremacist society. Attributing his mass murder to mental illness does three things: 1. It stigmatizes and scapegoats the mentally ill; 2. It erases his true intentions and absolves him of personal responsibility for his crime; and 3. It reduces racism to an aberrant quality present in a few isolated individuals, rather than recognizing its ingrained status in the structure of American society and institutions.
This shooter grew up in a culture that allowed and encouraged him to revere the Confederacy, apartheid South Africa, and white-ruled Rhodesia. And we continue to see less obvious examples of that racist culture in the way he is treated.
Besides the rush to excuse his behavior by blaming it on mental illness, we have the simple fact that a white man who was known to be armed and willing to kill — who literally just committed mass murder- was taken alive. Not only that, but when he was arrested, police put him in a bulletproof vest. In other words, when they captured a man who had just murdered 9 black victims in cold blood, the officers’ first instinct was to protect him (against a violent backlash they assumed would come, but has failed to materialize.) Meanwhile, in the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others, officers’ first instinct was to use deadly force.
Even in the aftermath of a deadly hate crime against Charleston’s black community, police and media responses demonstrate whose lives are valued the most.
This shooting, and its aftermath, also reminded me of another shooting, at UC Santa Barbara. In that case, as in this one, the shooter was a white male who felt threatened and offended by a changing society that he felt was beginning to value “others” over himself. We once again had a manifesto expressing his rage and entitlement, and clearly defining his target population. In this case, it was women, who the shooter felt did not grant him the respect and sex he felt he deserved. Despite the fact that he literally wrote his motive down for us, we were still treated to discourses on how his mental health must have steered his actions, rather than blaming his misogyny, and a society that encouraged him to believe that he was entitled to women’s bodies.
While racism and misogyny are not the same, they often intersect in critical ways. One of the things the Charleston shooter used to justify his actions was a preoccupation with white women’s “purity,” and a desire to eliminate the threat he felt black men posed to it. And the best evidence of the persistence of white supremacy and white male privilege is the fact that even when they commit mass atrocities, people still look for ways to excuse white men.