Home > Race Matters > When Does the Gunman’s Race Matter?

When Does the Gunman’s Race Matter?

The Chronicle Review this week is essentially devoted to analysis of and commentary on the Virginia Tech massacre. The Chronicle asked a number of individuals what they would say if they were asked to speak to the Virginia Tech graduating class at commencement this year. Edward J. W. Park’s contribution deserves special attention from everyone, I think. (no subscription needed)
Park’s message to the graduating seniors – and to all of is – is about how racial and ethnic labels function in our society and in particular in the case of shooting incidents. It is about his hope that education can help us all “transcend hollow labels”.
Park recounts how the events of April 16 were experienced by members of minority groups on his campus:

At first we did not know the identity of the perpetrator. After a discussion about choosing a major, a Latino student quietly shared his anxiety: “God, I hope it’s not a Latino.” Then we heard that the first two victims had been an African-American man and a white woman. “I hope it isn’t a black person,” an African-American colleague told me in the mailroom. “If it is, we’re going to catch hell.”
At a luncheon to welcome prospective Asian and Asian-American students, the fact that the shooter was an Asian man had already entered the conversation. Many in attendance were on edge as they speculated about his ethnicity and immigration status. In an odd game of “guess the shooter,” they didn’t want it to be one of their own: “I hope he’s not Vietnamese”; “I hope he’s not Filipino.” The list went on.

Park is Korean, and at one point when it was speculated that the shooter was Chinese, he admits he felt a tiny sense of relief that the shooter was not Korean – which, of course, turned out not to be the case.
When it became known that the shooter was Korean, then it seemed that “Korean” was one of the most important things to know about him. Korean-Americans feared a backlash; Korean-Americans like Park were asked to comment by the news media. The South Korean government apologized and many Korean-Americans did as well. Gillian Coldsnow has put together an excellent post on this phenomenon on her blog. Why should the South Korean government apologize to the U.S. for the actions of a student in Virginia? Why should Korean-Americans like Washington State Senator Paull Shin apologize?
Park says

It is revealing that on the day of the shooting, everyone who played the “guess the shooter” game with any sense of personal investment was a member of a minority group. Given our past experiences, we knew that, if the shooter had been white, the responsibility, blame, and anger would have begun with the individual. But for us, the responsibility, blame, and anger also implicated our racial and ethnic identity.

Last year, when a white man entered an Amish schoolhouse and killed five girls, we did not see white men in America wringing their hands in dismay about what this meant for their ethnic group. Nor did we hear about fears of a backlash against white males across the country as a result of this truly horrific crime. We did not interrogate the meaning of this event for what light it might shed upon white males in American culture. The killer was not seen in any media reports as in any way representative of any group. He was merely himself; he represented no race and no ethnicity. The fact that he was white was irrelevant. (Hell, the fact that he was male was not even worthy of note. Now, if a killer is female, we stand up and take notice of that; we figure it needs some explaining. When men kill, that’s just normal.)
Park hopes our understanding of the Virginia Tech tragedy does not stop with the words of a Voice of America headline, “University Gunman Was South Korean Student.” Can you imagine a similar headline after the Columbine tragedy – “High School Shooters Were White Students”?
How would we wrap our heads around that kind of headline? If it seems bizarre to you, then I hope you can begin to imagine that Voice of America headline as bizarre, too.
Another article in the Chronicle Review (also no subscription needed) by Kristin A. Goss is relevant to this topic. Titled Good Policy, Not Stories, Can Reduce Violence, Goss discusses the dangerous assumption that if only we knew more about the shooter, we could learn how to prevent future violence. She reveals compelling research examining mass shootings over a 26-year period that showed no pattern or consistency among the perpetrators.

Among the report’s most striking findings: “There is no ‘profile’ of a school shooter; instead, the students who carried out the attacks differed from one another in numerous ways.” In other words, focusing on individual traits would have told us nothing about how to construct policies to prevent such shootings from happening in the future.

Goss notes

Framing these events in terms of stories about the deranged shooter facilitates that argument and leaves the public feeling that all public policies are pointless — that nothing can be done.

We love individual stories, we eat up information about perpetrators and victims. But Goss urges us to turn our attention more towards collective solutions if anything is ever to change. Knowing every last detail about an individual’s life may help us understand something about what set that particular person off; it won’t help us understand how to craft meaningful policy to make a better society.
If we are going to learn anything from the Virgina Tech tragedy, I hope we can at least learn this much. Paradoxically, we need to see people more as individuals, not as representing an entire race or ethnicity; and we need to focus less on individuals in tragic cases like mass shootings, in order to develop meaningful policy responses.

Categories: Race Matters
  1. May 1, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    I also think it’s interesting that when talking about school shooters they always generalise it and talk about the shooters in gender neutral terms when it’s almost always a male.

  2. JYB
    May 1, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    I’ve wondered that too. Especially since the news made him seem like he was fresh off the boat and we should be carefully monitoring those dangerous foreigners. I think I read he had been here since he was 8 y/o. 8! He spent most of his life in the US.

  3. anon
    May 2, 2007 at 1:36 am

    Great post! When I heard about the shootings I was thinking, “I hope he is not an international student on F1 visa.”

  4. May 2, 2007 at 10:50 am

    I think everybody had some sort of “I hope he’s not a (insert group that I’m part of here)” reaction because of the frenzy of uninformed speculation that always follows these things where various idiots blame it on everything even vaguely related to the murderer and a few things that aren’t. My initial reaction was to hope that he didn’t like video games and wasn’t an engineer.

  5. May 2, 2007 at 10:50 am

    I think everybody had some sort of “I hope he’s not a (insert group that I’m part of here)” reaction because of the frenzy of uninformed speculation that always follows these things where various idiots blame it on everything even vaguely related to the murderer and a few things that aren’t. My initial reaction was to hope that he didn’t like video games and wasn’t an engineer.

  6. Dave Eaton
    May 2, 2007 at 11:47 am

    I wonder if such a crime happened in someplace where white males were not the default media setting if there would be a similar experience by any (in this case minority) white guys?
    When I think shooting spree, I sort of do assume it’s going to be a white male between 21 and 55 (generally at a workplace. I don’t know that I have data to back up this prejudice, but it is what I immediately think of). The white males who shot up Columbine and Paducah, KY were notable because they were young, and geeky, and that got trumpeted. Is it possible that the thing that makes it noteworthy is precisely that it doesn’t involve the ‘right’ demographic? Of course, the crime is no more/less heinous because of the race/gender/politics of the shooter, but it is a data point that is news, if that term means anything.

  7. May 2, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    I was especially disturbed by the shrill idiocy about “foreigners” that came from some corners of the slime-sphere after the VT shootings — mostly because I can’t imagine how it would make the victims’ families feel. Among the victims were people from Indonesia, Egypt, India, Canada, and Latin America. One was a naturalized citizen born in China. One had a German wife, another, a Korean mother. And everyone by now knows how Liviu Librescu, himself a naturalized U.S. citizen, was killed while protecting his students from the gunfire.
    If anyone needs to be apologizing right now, it’s certainly not Koreans or Korean-Americans, who bear no collective responsibility for the actions of one severely disturbed individual. It’s Debbie Schlussel and her ilk who should be personally apologizing to the families of the victims right now.

  8. bsci
    May 2, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    There’s a certain amount of ethnic pride when people from your group succeed or fail. No one wants someone of the same group to be linked to something terrible. Whether it’s an enlightened emotion or not, there is a relief when you know “one of your own” is not involved. For example, there’s MattXIV’s comment My initial reaction was to hope that he didn’t like video games and wasn’t an engineer.
    (The Korean government appologizing was bizarre… hadn’t heard about that before now.)
    As for the Amish schoolhouse shooting there was a lot of talk about the man’s very disturbing interactions with woman. You didn’t see all white men feeling guilty because white male isn’t an ethnicity. It’s about a personal connection and identifying with the person. If a criminal was the same religion as me or if the event was an American in another country I’d feel more involved than mere white-maleness.
    Finally, being an international student IS a major issue, but not for the reasons you’ve stated. I’ve been involved in some mental health surveys and international students are often extremely undertreated populations. With a mix between cultural aversion to seeking mental help, an alienation in a new society, and some language barrier (not a major issue in this case) international students are much less likely to get the help they need and to follow through. Any event that points this out (and it wasn’t pointed out well in this case) is doing a great service.

  9. bsci
    May 2, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    There’s a certain amount of ethnic pride when people from your group succeed or fail. No one wants someone of the same group to be linked to something terrible. Whether it’s an enlightened emotion or not, there is a relief when you know “one of your own” is not involved. For example, there’s MattXIV’s comment My initial reaction was to hope that he didn’t like video games and wasn’t an engineer.
    (The Korean government appologizing was bizarre… hadn’t heard about that before now.)
    As for the Amish schoolhouse shooting there was a lot of talk about the man’s very disturbing interactions with woman. You didn’t see all white men feeling guilty because white male isn’t an ethnicity. It’s about a personal connection and identifying with the person. If a criminal was the same religion as me or if the event was an American in another country I’d feel more involved than mere white-maleness.
    Finally, being an international student IS a major issue, but not for the reasons you’ve stated. I’ve been involved in some mental health surveys and international students are often extremely undertreated populations. With a mix between cultural aversion to seeking mental help, an alienation in a new society, and some language barrier (not a major issue in this case) international students are much less likely to get the help they need and to follow through. Any event that points this out (and it wasn’t pointed out well in this case) is doing a great service.

  10. Laura
    May 2, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Good point about mental health care for international students, bsci. One of my favorite public radio programs has a show on this topic, it’s linked from here: http://www.lcmedia.com/mindprgm.htm — scroll down to the episode titled “In Any Language: Mental Health Care for Immigrants” to listen for free.

  11. HI
    May 3, 2007 at 12:55 am

    bsci wrote:
    “There’s a certain amount of ethnic pride when people from your group succeed or fail. No one wants someone of the same group to be linked to something terrible. Whether it’s an enlightened emotion or not, there is a relief when you know “one of your own” is not involved. For example, there’s MattXIV’s comment My initial reaction was to hope that he didn’t like video games and wasn’t an engineer.”
    While ethnic pride is part of it, there is another part. What the African-American colleague of Park told in the article sums up the way I feel as non-white. “If it is [African-American], we’re going to catch hell.” We know that we could easily be targets of prejudice and discrimination. And we fear that an incident like this may reinforce the prejudice that already exists. We fear that our lives might be affected.
    This reminds me of a conversation that I, a Japanese, had with my Italian roommate shortly after 911. He said something to the effect that all the Arab or Muslim people in this country, even those who are citizens, should be incarcerated. Since I’m not an Arab nor Muslim, I would not be directly affected if something like that happened. But what I knew too well was that I could easily be a target of such treatment in a different time. If I accept something like that to happen to Muslims, I would have to justify something like that to happen to Japanese. But my Italian friend didn’t have such fear, even though both of our native countries once had been enemies of US. Talking to my Indian friends was a different story. They all understood my point.

  12. bsci
    May 3, 2007 at 10:39 am

    HI, I understand your point. As a personal, but less extreme example, every time a prominant Jewish businessperson is convicted of fraud it is bad the community and reinforces prejudice. When Jack Abromoff was arrested and every article called him a Jew and he chose that time to start dressing with a black hat of Orthodox Jews it horrified everyone and really did feed into the stories of manipulative Jews. If you didn’t notice all the times Abromoff articles included mention of his religion, I did.
    This pales in comparison to a massacre, but I point is well taken.

  13. May 3, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Yes, this is the point I was trying to make, or should I say, to second Park’s point: the stakes are different for minority groups. For example, while an engineer who plays video games might reasonably think “I hope it wasn’t an engineer who plays video games” because he/she doesn’t want negative stereotypes about people who engage in such activities (anti-social, weird) to be reinforced, such a person would not necessarily have to fear that there would be a general backlash in society against game-playing engineers that could result in harassment, violence, and danger to him/herself. But a member of a minority group could expect exactly that sort of reaction.
    Today in the Philadelphia Inquirer I read a story about a sixth grade girl who happens to be Korean American who was questioned by police and psychologists for hours.
    (See http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20070503_School_fears_on_the_rise.html Don’t know how long that link will be good – archived articles are eventually for pay, I think.) Why? Because classmates of hers went to teachers and the principal claiming she threatened to kill them all. Did she? It seems what actually happened was that a group of them ganged up around her and asked her “do you want to kill all of us?” So it was actually white students harassing the Korean American student. But she was the one who got questioned by police and psychologists. The family has pulled her out of the school and enrolled her in a private school, and they are planning to sell their house and move because they feel so unwanted and unsafe where they are right now.
    This is the difference between being a minority and being white.

  14. Mecha
    May 4, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    Along these lines (pleasing both the ‘gamer discrimination’ and the ‘asian-american discrimination’ types),
    http://www.fortbendnow.com/news/2847/chinese-community-rallies-behind-student-removed-from-clements-over-pc-game-map
    Good, good times in our world.
    -Mecha

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: