School Shootings and White Denial

Published on Alternet,, 3/6/01

I can think of no other way to say this, so here goes: An awful lot of white folks need to pull our heads out of our collective ass. Two more children are dead and thirteen are injured, and another community is scratching its blonde scalp, utterly perplexed as to how a school shooting the likes of the one in Santee, California could happen. After all, as the Mayor of the town said on CNN: “We’re a solid town, a good town, with good kids; a good church-going town; an All-American town.” Well, maybe that’s the problem.

I said this after Columbine and no one listened, so I’ll say it again: Most whites live in a state of self-delusion. We think danger is black or brown, not to mention poor, and if we can just move far enough away from “those people,” we’ll be safe. If we can just find an “all-American” town, life will be better, because “things like this just don’t happen here.”

Well excuse me for pointing this out, but in case you hadn’t noticed, “here” is about the only place these kinds of things do happen. Oh sure, there’s plenty of violence in urban communities too. But mass murder, wholesale slaughter, kill-’em-all-let-God-sort-’em-out kinda’ craziness seems made for those “safe” white suburbs or rural communities. Yet the FBI insists there is no “profile” of a school shooter.

Come again? White boy after white boy after white boy decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? In the past two years, thirty-two young men have either carried out mass murder against classmates and teachers or planned to do so, only to be foiled at the last minute. Thirty of these have been white. Yet there is no profile? Imagine if these killers and would-be killers had nearly all been black. Would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful.

Indeed, if any black child, especially in the white suburbs of Littleton or Santee, were to openly discuss plans to murder fellow students, as happened at Columbine and Santana High, you can bet somebody would have turned them in and the cops would have beat a path to their door. But when whites discuss murderous intentions, our racial stereotypes of danger too often lead us to ignore it. They’re just “talking” and won’t really do anything, we tell ourselves. How many have to die before we rethink that nonsense? How many parents, Mayors and Sheriffs must we listen to, describing how “normal” their community is, and how they can’t understand what went wrong?

I’ll tell you what went wrong and it’s not TV, rap music, video games or a lack of prayer in school. What went wrong is that white Americans ignored dysfunction and violence when it only seemed to affect other communities, and thereby blinded ourselves to the chaos that never remains isolated forever. That which affects the urban “ghetto” today will be coming to a Wal-Mart near you tomorrow, and was actually there all along, merely hidden by layers of privilege that allow most white folks to cover up our own pathologies.

What went wrong is that we allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by media representations of crime and violence that portray both as the province of those who are anything but white like us. We ignore the warning signs, because in our minds, the warning signs don’t live in our neighborhood, but across town, in that place where we lock our car doors on the rare occasion we have to drive there. That false sense of security — the result of race and class stereotypes — then gets people killed. And still we act amazed.

But listen up my fellow white Americans: Our children are no better, no more moral, and no more decent than anyone else. Dysfunction is all around us, whether we choose to recognize it or not, and not only in terms of school shootings. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and the Monitoring the Future report from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, it is our children, and not those of the urban ghetto who are most likely to use drugs. White high school students are seven times more likely than blacks to have used cocaine and heroin, eight times more likely to have smoked crack, and ten times more likely to have used LSD. What’s more, it is white youth between the ages of 12-17 who are more likely to sell drugs: one third more likely than their black counterparts; and it is white youth who are twice as likely to binge drink, and nearly twice as likely as blacks to drive drunk; and white males are twice as likely as black males to bring a weapon to school.

Yet I would bet there aren’t one hundred white people in Santee, or most anywhere else who have ever heard a single one of the statistics above; because the media doesn’t report on white dysfunction; at least not in a fashion that leads one to recognize the dysfunction as explicitly white.

A few years ago, U.S. News ran a story entitled: “A Shocking look at blacks and crime.” Yet never has any media outlet discussed the “shocking” whiteness of these shoot-em-ups. Indeed, every time media commentators discuss the similarities in these crimes, they mention that the shooters were boys who got picked on, but never do they seem to notice a certain highly visible melanin deficiency. Color-blind, I guess.

White-blind is more like it, as I figure these folks would spot color with a quickness were some of it to stroll into their community. Indeed, Santee’s whiteness is so taken for granted by its residents that the Mayor, in that CNN interview, thought nothing of saying on the one hand that the town was eighty-two percent white, but that on the other hand, “This is America.” Well that isn’t America, and it especially isn’t California, where whites are only half of the population. This is a town that is removed from America, from its own state, and yet its Mayor thinks they are the normal ones; so much so that when asked about racial diversity, he replied that there weren’t many of different “ethni-tis-tities.” Not a word. Not even close.

I’d like to think that after this one, people would wake up, take note, and rethink their stereotypes of who the dangerous ones are. But deep down, I know better. The folks hitting the snooze button on this none-too-subtle alarm are my own people after all, and I know their blindness like the back of my hand.

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