Blinded by the White: Race, Crime and Columbine High

Published in Z Magazine, June, 1999

Imagine a quiet, suburban community, commonly referred to as a “nice place to live and raise kids.” It’s a community known for civic pride, affluent families, and schools where the students score well above average on aptitude tests. It’s also 93 percent white.

Now imagine that at this community’s high school, a handful of black students who say they feel like outcasts begin talking openly about how they hate everyone. They start dressing alike: perhaps wearing the same jackets, or black berets; and they show off their gun collection in a video they produce for a class project. In this video, they act out the murders of dozens of students and teachers. In addition, the students are known to operate a website which praises a mass murderer, and on which they have been known to post hit lists, letting everyone know who they hate most, and intend to kill first. One of the targets of their hatred discovers the list, tells his father, and the two of them inform police of the thinly veiled threat.

Now, let us ask and answer the following question: How long would it take, given this information, for school officials, teachers, and parents to make sure these kids were expelled? How long would it take for their families to be run out of town? Does anyone believe this scenario would have been met with apathy, indifference, or even amusement? Of course not; but that’s exactly what happened in the real world when at this same school, in this same community, two white students from “good families” began dressing alike, saying they hated everyone, showing off their guns and murder fantasies on film, and operating a website that praised Hitler and named those they wanted to kill.

Still seen as “basically normal kids” by their families, friends and teachers, these two would be ignored until last week, when they would go on a killing rampage reminiscent of the previous seven that have occurred at schools around the country in the past two years.

“No one really thought they’d do anything,” said some classmates. “We thought it was all talk,” said others. Of course: these were white kids whose families make six figures or more. These are the beautiful people, who never do anything wrong. “We moved from the city to get away from things like this.” The statement rings in my ears with a burning familiarity. It’s the same thing heard after Paducah, Pearl, Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Edinboro, and Springfield; and now again, in the wake of Littleton. Some people never get it. Some people are so caught up in their race and class stereotypes about what “danger” looks like, they still insist, “things like this don’t happen here.”

Which raises the obvious question as to just where they do happen? Frankly, I’ve yet to hear of one black or Latino kid in an inner-city school plotting or carrying out mass murder. Just where does an urban-dweller go to build thirty-five bombs anyway? Christ, if these kids had been black they would have been followed around the hardware store for so long that they would never have been able to buy any pipes, let alone the other ingredients needed for the kind of explosives Klebold and Harris concocted.

So in light of what’s happened, not only in Littleton, but in “nice, quiet” suburbs all around the country lately, one must ask: just what were these folks trying to get away from in the cities? Must not have been violence. Must have been black and brown people (except, of course for the handful that can afford to live among them in style), and poor folks generally. How sad.

Once again, the racialization of deviance has allowed us to let down our guard to the greatest threats to our safety: not people of color (if we’re white), but our own white children, white parents, white neighbors, white husbands, white lovers and white friends. We have been so conditioned to see deviant and destructive behavior as a by-product of melanin or “defective” black culture that commentators can, without any sense of irony, continue to remark about how, well, remarkable it is when things like this happen.

It reminds me of something James Baldwin once said about the Holocaust: a much bigger paroxysm of white violence no doubt, but which nonetheless resonates here — “They did not know that they could act that way. But I doubt very much whether black people were astounded.”

Of course, that the school killers have all been white lately has gone without mention in the media. Oh sure, we hear about the similarities between the Columbine tragedy and the others–well at least some of the similarities: all the shooters were boys; all the shooters used guns; all the shooters talked openly about violence; all the shooters played violent video games; all the shooters ate Cheerios at some point in the last ten years. You get the picture.

In other words, the racial similarities between these gun lovin’, trash-talkin’, dark-clothes wearin’, ‘Doom’-playin’, Cheerios-eatin’ sacks of testosterone was irrelevant. While we can rest assured these kids would have been “raced” had they come from black “ghetto matriarchs” in the ‘hood, it seems as though no one can see the most obvious common characteristic among them: namely, their white skin. This, I guess is what folks mean when they say they’re color-blind: they can see color all right, it’s white they have a problem with. Typical.

White folks go off, killing wholesale like there’s a closeout on semi-automatic ammunition, and we get fifty-eleven “explanations” from the so-called experts, called in to make sense of it all. People of color commit random acts of retail violence and the whole world lines up to blame one of three things: their black families (particularly their black single mommas); their black DNA (as in the rantings of the Bell Curve); or their “defective” black culture and inverted value system. Whatever the case, their blackness never, and I mean never, gets overlooked.

Gang violence in the cities heats up and we’ve got U.S. News and World Report running a story entitled: “A Shocking Look at Blacks and Crime,” and every nighttime news program running stories asking, “What’s wrong with the black family?” (as if there’s only one), or “What’s wrong with these people in the ghetto underclass?” But when Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer go out and do their thing, no one thinks to ask what it is about white folks that makes them cut babies out of their mothers’ wombs, torture young men and bury them under the house, kill two dozen women for the hell of it, or consume human flesh.

White deviants are afforded the privilege of individualization (“That’s just crazy Charlie, ignore him, he’s a potted plant”), while those of color get to represent their whole community and become Exhibit A in David Duke and Charles Murray’s eugenic fantasy. You say the vast majority of modern serial killers have been white? Well isn’t that puzzling? Next question.

You’ll never even hear the term “white crime” in polite conversation. White collar crime, maybe; but to suggest that the collar might not be the only thing lacking color, would be dogma non grata in mainstream discussion. “White-on-white violence?” What the hell is that? Never heard of it. Even in the wake of these massacres. Even as white folks are killing other white folks in Kosovo (and still other white folks are bombing them to get them to stop).

The media and politicians have done such a fine job making sure we know who to fear (namely the dark and poor), that we forget how whites are disproportionately likely to engage in all kinds of destructive behavior, from drunk driving, to drug use as teens, to animal mutilation, to fratricide, to cutting corners on occupational safety standards and pollution control, which then causes the deaths of twice as many people as are murdered annually. We forget too, that when it comes to violent crime, whites are four times more likely to be victimized by another white person than by a person of color, and that only six-ten-thousandths of one percent of the white community will be killed by a black person in a given year.

It all leads one to wonder: how many of the white families with kids at Columbine would have moved, or at least taken their kids out of the school if, say, 100 black families had moved in and enrolled their children there? If other suburbs and other whites are any indication, the answer is quite a few. Study after study for twenty-five years has found that whites begin to leave an area and disenroll their kids from the schools when the community becomes as little as eight percent black. As the numbers get higher, the trickle becomes a mass exodus. And why? Well, to get away from crime of course, which in this case must rank as an especially disturbing textbook definition of irony.

Even more absurd is the tendency to act as if young white people were ever innocent, upstanding citizens compared to the rest of the country. Even as far back as 1966, a national survey of 15-17 year old white males found that virtually all had committed numerous criminal offenses, from breaking and entering, to minor property destruction, to armed robbery.

Maybe that’s why all those shows like “Leave it To Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “The Brady Bunch” were so popular: not because many people actually lived like that, but because they didn’t, and could escape into this unreal fantasy life via the television. After all, why watch a program that looks just like your daily routine? That would be boring. So just as with westerns that allowed mostly white kids to fantasize about a more exciting life, these wholesome family programs allowed (and still allow in syndication) mostly white viewers to ignore the dysfunction which is really all around them, and always has been, long before the first black kid set foot in their schools, and long before the “Godless” humanists bounced prayer from homeroom.

Unfortunately, I have no doubt this kind of thing will happen again. In fact, had it not been for a few folks informing on plots they knew about, we would already have added a Milwaukee suburb to the list of white teen angst killing fields, and a week after Columbine would have gotten a look at what kind of explosives caucasians in Texas are capable of putting together. Still, according to my morning paper, less than half of all teens and their parents (mostly white if modern survey techniques are any guide) think their schools are at risk for this kind of violence.

Yeah well, just keep telling yourself that. And keep watching “COPS” and “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol,” and “America’s Most Wanted,” where most of the bad guys fit the more comfortable profile to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Ah yes, that’s better. I can hear the dialogue now: “Why look at how menacing the large Negro on TV is honey! My, oh my, we sure are glad we moved out here to Pleasantville: my lovely wife, our son, and me. Speaking of whom, honey, where is Waldo anyway? I don’t think I’ve seen him all week. Is he on that computer of his again? That scamp. Such a hard worker. Oh, and honey, what was that sawing sound coming from the garage last night?”

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