Standing in line at the California Science Center the day of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary school, my students wondered aloud about the race of the shooter. “More than likely he was white,” they agreed. As the only people of color waiting to be admitted to the exhibit, their open question about race elicited visible unease from a group of elderly white women across the line from us.
According to a Mother Jones timeline of mass shootings from the 1980s to the present, the majority of American mass murderers have been white males. The most infamous young killers—the Columbine High shooters, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and now Adam Lanza—share a common cultural theme and national narrative. “Deranged” loners who came from lower to upper middle class nuclear families, their murder sprees forever shattered white suburbia’s veneer of normalcy. Over the past decade, the post-mass murder mantra has been grindingly familiar—“this couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t happen HERE, in our idyllic (white) suburban community.” Catastrophic violence is implicitly marked as the province of the other, the inner city, the cesspit jungle where poor children (of color), according to GOP sage Newt Gingrich, have no work ethic and thus no “habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.”
And yet, methodically plotted acts of epic violence committed by young white males with mini arsenals aping video game assassins are increasingly the hallmark of “HERE”. So no doubt the elderly white women’s unease came from a sense of deep existential displacement. When you’ve been suckled on Ozzie and Harriet, its “hard” to have your whiteness referenced as a source of violence, especially by people of color.
As the unraced universal subject, white people are simply unaccustomed to being explicitly identified as white. For many, the tired colorblind party line of white privilege means that just talking about race is racist. Universal means normal, and even the most heinous white criminals (Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer, and the list goes on) are humanized by a back story of psychoanalysis, cable TV biopics, books, and pop culture reportage. The wages of whiteness means not having to know the classic people of color ritual—i.e., that when big crime news breaks its pro forma for many African Americans and Latinos to find out the race of the perpetrator and then those of the victims. If the perpetrator is white there is a collective sigh of relief that Middle America won’t have another dark savage, immigrant or Muslim community to demonize. If the victims are of color, there is a short window before the media’s attention fades (ala the August massacre of six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin) and shifts to more important matters like Lindsey Lohan or missing white girls.