Excuses not explanations: “Whiteness” and Gun Violence

Two weeks ago, Santa Monica, California became yet another reminder of America’s gun violence epidemic; it became another moment to see the deadly consequences of a culture of guns, violence and masculinity.  It became another reminder of how the media narrative constrains and limits available interventions.

Before the suspect was even identified, the police and media were already reporting that the person responsible for murdering 4 people and wounding several more people, had “issues.”  Citing a history of mental illness and despair resulting from the divorce of his parents, the response immediately turned to “why” and how could “he” do something like this.

And what he did is horrifying: initially setting fire to his father’s home, and killing both his brother and father, he then carjacked a women, demanding that she drive him to Santa Monica College, where he had school in 2010.  Before arriving on campus, he sprayed at least one car and a bus with bullets.   He proceeded to shoot several people on campus, including several students who were likely preparing for finals.  He, on the other hand, was prepared for a brutal massacre.  According to reports:

The assailant dressed in black and carried an assault-style rifle. Seabrooks estimated the gunman had about 1,300 rounds of ammunition during the rampage. Because he was wearing a ballistic vest and was heavily armed, “I would say it’s premeditated,” she said.

Premeditated, you say?  Thanks for the Pulitzer Prize reportage.  This commonplace narrative, those reserved for whites, for the middle class, has emerged since Friday.

The eventual reports naming a suspect – John Zawahri – has led to speculation among rightwing blogs that he is Middle Eastern and Muslim, providing the narrative explanation for what happened in Santa Monica (news reports actually indicate that his parents emigrated from Lebanon and that John grew up Christian).

More importantly to those extremist voices is that his “name” demonstrates that he is indeed not white.  Seemingly deploying a biological and cultural understanding of race (erasing the complexity, constructed nature, how racial identification work), this response denies his “whiteness.”  It therefore told us nothing about whiteness.    More importantly to those who embraced a trope of white male victimhood was that inspite of lacking “whiteness,” the media was purportedly perpetuating the demonization of white males.  Turning the moment into another instance to reimagine white males as victims, the response thus far has been one of both excuses/ understanding for his actions and distancing of him from white masculinity.  In other words, he has been consistently positioned as an individual; he is neither representative nor indicative of any larger trends.

What is striking is how quickly school shootings, mass shootings, those in places where violence is not “supposed to happen” (beach communities like Santa Monica; college campuses; middle-class neighborhoods), become a moment to reflect on mental health.  It is striking that when carried out by individuals not profiled or suspected as violent criminals or dangerous terrorists (those not black, Latino or Muslim) how prominent the “why” narrative becomes.  Before a name is reported, before any details emerged, mental illness is cited.  The fact that we don’t seek those answers, we don’t deploy these narratives, in other instances, is telling.

Why don’t we (society; politicians; the criminal justice system; the media) seek answers in the aftermath of shootings in Chicago, New York City or New Orleans?  Where are sources noting past relationships between those suspected in killings and issues of mental health?  Family troubles; divorces, abuse? The absence of discussion might reflect that youth of color, whether looking at our education system or the criminal justice system, to be criminalized rather than treated.  So, there is no record of mental health intervention.  But maybe it’s because “deep in the white American psyche: the impossibility of Black innocence” (Mann 2013).  Without innocence, without an assumption of righteousness, there is never a need or a desire to figure out “why.”

If solutions, interventions, and transformation were a true goal, we might begin to ask “why?” We might begin to look at issues of mental health in every instance of gun violence; we might begin to talk about PDST and trauma in EVERY CASE.  We might look at a recent study from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), which concluded that 50 and 65 percent of male and female juveniles experienced traumatic brain injuries.

This shows us that we have a real serious organic medical problem among the adolescents,” Dr. Homer Venters, assistant commissioner of the city’s Correctional Health Services, said at a Board of Corrections meeting in March. “We often end up giving someone a mental health diagnosis, who does not have a mental health problem, but rather TBI.” …. In 2008, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which runs Correctional Health Services, created a surveillance and tracking system for new injuries suffered by inmates at Rikers Island, including head injuries. But Venters recognized that head injuries sustained even before an individual is incarcerated could also impact his patients and affect their mental health and even their length of stay in jail.  Two of the most significant manifestations of traumatic brain injuries are emotional dysregulation and impaired processing speed. “This means you can’t control your emotions and you can’t follow directions,” Venters told the corrections board. “These are two very serious complications for people who find themselves in jail.

The high rate of TBI, which likely predates incarceration, surely needs to be part of the conversation about “crime.”  It certainly needs to be part of the “why” or is that a question one only asks when violence occurs involving people we don’t expect to kill or for those we don’t see as “legible” (Neal 2013) threats.  If only we asked the same questions, demanded the same answers of why, we might be able to move forward.  But that would require seeing humanity outside of our race-colored glasses.