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In my mind, trying to enter a Black, Baptist church and then later killing two black people in a public space is very intentional, if not calculated. It’s evidence of a very specific hatred of Black people—regardless of the source of that hatred. But apparently to the media, the issue of race was barely secondary. There seemed to be a resistance to call it a racially-motivated killing. In fact, every story for 48 hours after this horrific tragedy framed Bush as a man with mental health challenges, possibly set off by a bad life or bad series of events, and not the domestic terrorist he is. Although seemingly not racially motivated, the same kind of framing occurred with our most recent mass shooting. One of the first descriptions of Ian David Long who shot 12 people in a Thousand Oaks, Ca., bar on November 7th was an emphasis on his diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
The problem with the mental health framing is not that it isn’t a factor, it’s the way that it fuels the stigma that already exists for those who live with mental health challenges. The number of people walking around with mental health challenges are numerous. I can throw a rock two feet and hit twenty. I would pop my own self in the head, if I’m honest, as I live with PTSD myself. And somehow they/I manage not to walk into a supermarket or place of worship or bar with a gun and kill random people.
And here’s the rub: While the go-to response to these killers is to position them as mentally unstable, there is a disparity even in the way that mental health framing is positioned. When perpetrators are brown or the victims are white, the media is less likely to emphasize mental health as a motive or cause. The focus in these cases are on the criminality of the individual. They are framed as the bad kid, the drug addict, or the religious fanatic. Certainly, these things may all be true, but somehow they are never allowed to be an excusable motive for committing heinous crimes. Black and brown perpetrators are never afforded the same framing as white perps. And I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be. I’m suggesting that white perpetrators should suffer the same criminalization.
So why the difference? The answer is the same for pretty much every disparity or injustice that exists today. Most media entities are beneficiaries of a system where white supremacy is deeply embedded. Even the most liberal of media outlets fall prey to framing shooters like Bush or Bowers or Long as mentally ill first and foremost while criminalizing Black perpetrators of lesser crimes from the start. As humans we always seek a reason for these awful events. That’s natural. However, white-owned media companies are more inclined to shape the motives of white perpetrators in ways that gain them more sympathy then those of black and brown perps.
Racism is deep seated. It’s a function of generational hatred and historical residue that runs deep. But it exists in a person long before mental illness can exacerbate it. Let’s go to the source. Let’s get to the root. And let’s frame the stories of these madmen so that the emphasis is on them being evil men and not necessarily just mad.