Calling a Racist Killer Mentally Ill Is A Dangerously Delusional Form Of White Denial


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Whenever a white mass shooter goes on a killing spree in the United States, media reports invariably turn to labeling the murderer as a mentally ill lone wolf, thereby removing his crime from any cultural context. The same luxury of course is not afforded Islamic terrorists or urban black gang members, whose crimes are automatically associated with the unique pathology of the Muslim faith or of African-American culture.

When members of racial or religious minorities commit atrocities, they are depicted as representatives of their cultural group and collective blame is assigned. Moderate Muslims are chastised for not speaking out forcefully enough against radical adherents of their faith. Urban gang criminals raise discussions about the failures of the black family structure or perhaps the supposedly poisonous cultural influence of hip hop music.

Yet when a racist white young fellow goes off and shoots up a black church killing nine innocent people, there is little to no discussion of the culture that young man was raised in. Instead his act is excused as some sort of aberration, completely divorced from the toxic racist cultural influences that shaped his murderous mentality.

Labeling a racist killer as mentally ill is a form of white denial that absolves the majority white culture of any collective responsibility for the actions of its members. It also forestalls any discussion of the crucial issues that the killing spree brings up, like institutionalized racism, gun culture, and perverse expressions of masculinity.

Calling it mental illness in a case where racism, not mental illness, is the central issue not only excuses the shooter of full responsibility, but it also denies his community had any role in his moral development or the creation of his hateful ideology. In this context, the Confederate flag that serves as a proud symbol for his racial group is cast aside as irrelevant, even as the shooter is photographed proudly standing in front of one.

That flag is deemed insignificant even though its still flies at full height at South Carolina’s capitol, mocking the American flag nearby that flies at half mast as its junior partner that mourns the church shooting. So pervasive is white supremacy in the state that South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley declares herself powerless to lower or remove the Confederate flag. She is apparently hamstrung by a 2000 law that has protected the flag even as the state has shown itself unable to protect its black residents from murderers who still carry the stars and bars into battle.

In discussing Roof’s crimes, nobody dares question the values of the white family. His father buying his racist son a gun for his 21st birthday after he had been arrested for multiple drug and trespassing offenses, arouses no debate about the misguided parenting priorities of white culture. The fact that his white roommate knew that Roof was planning a massacre to start a race war, but considered it too trivial a matter to report to the police, causes no collective outcry declaring that moderate whites need to speak out against white extremists, even as those extremists plot mass murder.

In America, we don’t excuse the actions of Islamic terrorists or of the Bloods and the Crips as the result of mental illness even though their actions are sometimes senselessly cruel. No, in those scenarios, we as a culture, willingly assign blame to the Muslim faith or to the “pathology of urban black culture”, characterizing the crimes of one group member as a reflection of all members of that group.

But when a guy like Dylann Storm Roof reflects the worst elements of his white upbringing and his white culture, we disown him from representing ”whiteness” and blame his behavior on individual pathology. Nobody lives in a vacuum. While we are not all equally responsible for the crimes of others, we all share some collective responsibility for the cultural environment we have created. If we won’t own it, we won’t change it.


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