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White victims warrant more sympathy; and other lessons from the Sikh temple massacre

Two weeks ago, the shooting rampage at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado dominated headlines, ‘round the clock news coverage and the twitter-verse for a week straight. Politicians fell all over themselves in a competition over who could pray the hardest for the victims and their families. President Obama traveled to Aurora to speak with the victims. Obama and Romney halted their election ads in Colorado out of respect for the victims. The media was saturated with background stories of the lives led by those who passed, interviews with survivors and debates over gun control. In typical fashion, the NRA crowd argued that if more moviegoers were armed, they could have taken out the shooter.

Contrast that with the aftermath of the Sunday massacre at a Wisconsin Sikh Temple perpetrated by Wade Michael Page, a neo-Nazi musician.

Aside from a handful of condolence tweets, politicians were largely silent. Perhaps this silence is due in part to the fact that the majority of America’s political establishment spent the last ten years demonizing turban-wearing terrorists, violent Muslims, pretty much all peoples/cultures within and adjacent to the areas of the world America has been bombing for over a decade, fearmongering which has likely helped foster the hatred and violence towards these “others”.

As far as I know, President Obama has no plans to visit with Wisconsin’s affected Sikh community and election ads weren’t postponed in Wisconsin out of respect for the victims. The day of the massacre, CNN was the only cable news station with nonstop, albeit ignorant, coverage of the shootings. MSNBC far to busy airing the Olympics to play the role of news outlet and FOX News…. I’ll admit, I didn’t check Fox News, but I can’t imagine their coverage of the shootings, if there was any, was nuanced enough to qualify as journalism. Lastly, I don’t recall even a single comment from the NRA types suggesting that Sikh Temple goers should arm themselves in order to prevent future tragedies.

So why did these massacres elicit such different reactions?

The truth is that Aurora’s victims were predominately white and white victims warrant more airtime, sympathy and attention. Some might argue that the Aurora massacre got more attention simply because it took place at a more relatable venue, the movie theatre, whereas Sunday’s massacre happened at a place of worship. That may be partly true, but had the shootings taken place at a white Christian church, the outrage and condolences would be endless.

Victims of color in America don’t seem to garner the attention of politicians, the media or the public. Think Hurricane Katrina, mass incarceration, the drug war, police violence, neglected inner-cities, civilian casualties of American drones, and so on.

Application of the death penalty is a case in point, where study after study has shown that black defendants are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts when the victim is white. Even if we ignore the race of the defendant, as Amnesty International puts it, “the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.” White victims elicit harsher punishments than victims of color.

This lack of empathy for victims of color goes beyond crime. According to a recent study carried out by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “Black cardiac arrest victims who are stricken outside hospitals are less likely to receive bystander CPR and defibrillation on the scene than white patients.” In 2010, an analysis of news coverage between 2005 and 2006 from five national TV stations found that missing black kids were “significantly underrepresented” in TV news coverage.

There’s also a clear disparity in the way the media portrays terrorism, which is directly dependent on the race of the perpetrator. A paper published in 2011 at the University of North Carolina concluded the following:

Since 9/11 there have been 11 terrorist events on U.S. soil that occurred or were stopped on the planned day of attack. This study of news coverage of those terrorist events revealed a thematic pattern of terrorism coverage in which fear of international terrorism is dominant, particularly as Muslims/Arabs/Islam working together in organized terrorist cells against a “Christian America,” while domestic terrorism is cast as a minor threat that occurs in isolated incidents by troubled individuals.

Though the FBI is treating the Sikh temple massacre as an act of domestic terrorism, which is a rarity when the killer is white, they say the motive of the shooter, Wade Michael Page, remains unclear. Given Page’s known history as “a frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok, how is it possible that a motive has yet to be found? Is white supremacy not motive enough?

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One Comment
  1. Lynda M O #

    Unbelievable that white supremacy cannot be pegged as the motive. What’s the problem with these folks doing the deciding ?~!

    August 9, 2012

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