Of Bigots and Broken Records: Reflections on the Psychopathology of Racist Thinking

Sometimes it seems as if there are people who sit around, almost hoping for awful things to happen, just so they can use these incidents, however tragic, to make some kind of political point. So consider the evangelical preachers who responded to Hurricane Katrina by claiming that the tragic inundation of New Orleans occurred because God was mad at the city for its decadent ways. Or even worse, Christian fascist Fred Phelps who argues that the reason soldiers get killed in Iraq is because God is punishing America for having tolerated homosexuality.

Then there are the right-wing radio hosts who seemingly relish in terrorist attacks around the world, so as to feed their fevered demands for an all-out war on Islam, or who pounce on every crime committed by an undocumented migrant, as evidence that we need to seal the border with Mexico. One has to wonder how folks like this would make their case, were it not for the occasional drunk driver who crossed the Mexican border without proper paperwork, and then killed someone; or how they would hold the attention of their sheep-like followers if al-Qaeda were to take a break from their terrorist proclivities for a few years.

Lately, however, it has been white supremacists and racists who have taken the cake when it comes to exploiting tragedy to further their agenda.

Shameless but Predictable: Racializing Tragedy at Virginia Tech

So, for instance, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings (which certain liberals also exploited, as a way to ramp up their rather simplistic, if still justifiable calls for gun control), racists were using the catastrophe as evidence of why America needed to be an all-white nation. On the message board of American Renaissance–the nation’s leading “highbrow” white supremacist website, which prides itself on its academic and pseudo-scholarly tone–one could read any number of racist comments in the wake of the shootings. Among them, one writer noted, “This sad incident goes to prove that non-whites, whether they be Asians, blacks, Arabs, Polynesians or Mexicans are completely unfit for life in white societies and all should be deported forthwith.” Another, basing his comments on the early (and inaccurate) reports that the shooter may have been romantically involved with the first female victim, proclaimed that the entire incident was yet another example of a “multiracial relationship ending in violence and death.” Another, echoing that theme (and ignoring the fact that over ninety percent of white women who are murdered are murdered by white men), noted that the incident proved whites should only date members of their own race, because they are “much less likely to carry their emotions to extremes.”

Others called for tight restrictions or even outright bans on immigration in the wake of the killings, with one proclaiming of Asians, “They are not white and they do not add any major positives by being here; they need to go, just like all the others!” Another took advantage of the tragedy to proclaim her disdain for Korean dry cleaners, grocery store operators and landlords, for presumably overcharging or refusing to rent to whites.

Ignoring that the shooter had been in the U.S. for almost his entire life, one commentator, apparently un-self-conscious about his own redundancy, exhorted: “The murderous foreigner who murdered all those helpless people is just another example of foreign invaders murdering our people and trashing our sovereignty.” Yet another proclaimed these crimes to be proof of the “third world’s war of immigration” on the U.S.–strange, considering that South Korea is not a so-called third world country–and insisted that criminality is genetically “innate” in “black and brown races.”

One especially bizarre comment on the AR site, from someone seeking to condemn gun control measures, noted than murderers like Cho can find compliant victims in pacifistic Amish country should they desire to kill a bunch of people: ironic considering that just recently it was a white man who went into an Amish school and massacred over a half-dozen young girls. Still others came close to blaming the victims of the shooting for having chosen to attend a multiracial school in the first place.

Exploiting a Double Murder: Racists Allege Media Ignores Black-on-White Killings

But if a story about a Korean American mass murderer is good for stoking racist hysteria, it pales in comparison to a good black-folks-raping-and-killing-whites tale. Nothing beefs up white rage and paranoia better than that, and sadly, such a story recently came to light: a truly awful crime in Knoxville, Tennessee, which occurred in early January.

According to the charges in the criminal indictment, three black men in Knoxville carjacked and kidnapped Christopher Newsom and his girlfriend, Channon Christian, and were then joined by a female suspect at the home of one of the perpetrators. Once there, the four raped both victims over several days, before murdering them. Clearly, this was a horrible crime, and all thinking people can agree that the perpetrators should face harsh punishment.

Unfortunately, for the professional racists, like those who populate the message boards at American Renaissance or Stormfront, this crime has become the stuff of a crusade: so much so that they have actually sought to fabricate certain details of the crimes, which the victim’s families, and the county medical examiner, as well as law enforcement all indicate are false. So, for example, neo-Nazi groups have claimed that Newsom’s penis was cut off, as were Christian’s breasts: details that are utterly without merit, but which indicate the psycho-sexual hangups of the white supremacist types who have made them up.

To the racists, the murders of Christian and Newsom prove that blacks are dangerous “animals” who pose a mortal threat to whites, and the only reason the crimes haven’t received national media attention, to hear them tell it, is because the perpetrators were black and the victims white. Presumably, if the roles had been reversed, the crime would have been front-page news, and on every network. As proof, they mention the way in which the national press covered the dragging death of James Byrd at the hands of white racists in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Or even better, they note the coverage of the rape allegations at Duke University, in which case the media jumped all over a story that, in the end, wasn’t even true. The reason? According to the white supremacists, it was because the alleged rapists were white and the alleged victim black.

Just yesterday I received an angry e-mail from yet another one of these folks, who asked, regarding the Knoxville killings, “Where be the Revs Al and Jesse (sic)?” Answering his own question, he then insisted that the only reason they weren’t providing counsel to the families of the victims was because the victims were white. Furthermore, the reason the NAACP and ACLU and New York Times hadn’t called for an investigation into the event, he explained, was because the victims were white. And the reason the FBI hasn’t investigated the crime as a hate crime was for the same reason.

But although white supremacists may try and score political points from this horrible tragedy, thinking people shouldn’t be taken in by their simplistic arguments. As for Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or the NAACP being involved in the case, why would they be? These crimes were not, according to any available evidence, based on racial hatred against the victims. So they are not the purview of either man or the NAACP as a group, which deals with issues of racial discrimination. To be angry with them for not getting involved would be like asking, “Where’s Ralph Nader?” Or for that matter, “Where’s Ross Perot?” Jackson and Sharpton don’t visit the families of most murder victims, of whatever race, because few murders involve the area of specific advocacy for which both men are known: namely, the area of race-based discrimination or mistreatment.

As for investigations of the incident, the suspects are in custody, the D.A. is gathering the necessary evidence for trial, and presumably is capable of investigating all possible angles for these horrific crimes. There is nothing at all to suggest the crimes were motivated by racial hatred, but if they were, then surely the police department at the heart of the investigation will be able to determine that. And if such information came to light, there is little doubt but that the FBI would become involved. But until the state investigation and prosecution of the suspects is completed, it would be absurd to expect the FBI to rush in, to investigate the possible prosecution of double-murderers as hate criminals. It would be like having the feds rush in to prosecute a mafia don for embezzlement in the middle of a murder trial.

Does Media Ignore Black-on-White Crime? Uh, No, Not Really

With regard to the allegations of racially biased press coverage, to suggest that this case has failed to receive media attention because of the respective races of the perps and the victims is absurd. Research has found that local news (which is the source most of us rely on for crime information) over-represents blacks as offenders, relative to their share of crimes committed, and over-represents whites as victims, relative to the white share of actual crime victims (1). Furthermore, on both a local and national level, media tends to give more attention to violent crimes committed by blacks against whites than the reverse (2).

There are several reasons, besides racial bias, why a crime even as brutal as this might not receive national news coverage. To begin with, very few crimes, including the most gruesome homicides, make national news. There are typically between 12-15,000 homicides each year in the Unites States, and only a few become fodder for national coverage. Of these, about 1200-1400 or so are interracial (with only a few of these being apparently motivated by racial bias). Of the interracial homicides, anywhere from 300 to 400 of these involve white killers and black victims, (Homicide Trends, FBI). But very few of these get national coverage, contrary to the claims of the racists. James Byrd is actually the exception, not the rule, so conjuring his case as evidence that the media cares more about black victims when victimized by whites than vice-versa, proves nothing. The year that Byrd was dragged to death there were 363 blacks killed by whites in America, and the other 362 of them have names that are known to virtually no one but their families.*

Those murders that do receive national coverage normally have some unique news hook: the perpetrator is a serial killer, or the crime occurs in a public place, or involves a hostage situation, or involves a mass killing spree, or involves the violation of federal law and thus takes on national implications, or perhaps the crime has some kind of political overtone. If we look at some of the prominently covered national crime stories from recent years, for example, we find several involving black perpetrators and white victims. But in each case, some special circumstance attached to the incident, thereby making what otherwise would have been a story with only local implications, into a national event.

Consider, as just a few examples, the Central Park Jogger rape in the 1980s; Colin Ferguson’s shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad in 1993; the DC snipers in 2003; the beating of Reginald Denny by three African Americans during the L.A. riots in 1992; the shooting of a judge and police officer, among others, in Atlanta in 2005 by a black defendant headed to trial; and the shooting of a young girl in a Flint, MI elementary school by a black child in the late 90s, not to mention the OJ Simpson case. But what differentiates all of these cases from the case in Knoxville, and likely led to them receiving maximum coverage, is that each involved a special “news hook” that made the incident relevant to a national audience.

So, for instance, the rape in Central Park took place in a national landmark, where millions of people from around the world visit each year. Had it occurred in an alley in Greenwich Village, or somewhere in Akron, Ohio, for that matter, it wouldn’t have received the same attention, even had the crime been every bit as brutal. Ferguson’s mass murder shooting took place on a commuter rail train, used daily by thousands of people, heading to and from work. It also appeared to have a particular anti-white racial motivation, so that it fit within a special news frame that a typical shooting incident likely would not have. The DC snipers were shooting people randomly in the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, and were on the loose, making the relevance of the crimes to a large audience fairly obvious. Denny was beaten in the midst of the Los Angeles riots, which obviously were a major news event at the time. Not to mention, the beating was captured on video. The shooting in the Atlanta Courthouse involved the murder of a state judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and a federal agent (after the killer, Brian Nichols fled), and the perp was on the loose for a time, thus major coverage was to be expected. The classroom shooting in Flint took place against the backdrop of a string of shootings that had taken place in schools across the country, and even though the specifics of the case were quite different than the others–it wasn’t a mass shooting, and it didn’t seem to be the result of a particularly premeditated or thought-out act on the part of the shooter–it nonetheless wasn’t surprising to see any school-based incident such as this covered in the wake of several campus-based events of that nature. And OJ, well, is OJ.

As for coverage of the rape allegations against members of the Duke lacrosse team, this story became a national issue not because of the races of the various parties, but because the supposed crime was claimed to have taken place on one of America’s most respected college campuses. Furthermore, the alleged perpetrators were elite lacrosse players, making the details of the supposed crime unique for any number of reasons. Had the crime been alleged at a community college in Durham, or anywhere else, for that matter, it is unlikely that the nation would have heard about it at all. The economic status of the alleged perps is what likely mattered here, as with Robert Chambers, the so-called “preppy murderer” in 1987, or Alex Kelly, the rapist from upscale Darien, Connecticut, who took off to Europe and stayed on the run for years, rather than stand trial for his crimes.

And to suggest, as the racists do, that stories with white perpetrators and victims of color automatically receive national coverage is simply inaccurate: indeed, so much so that one has to call into question the ability of such persons to do even a modicum of research, beyond that involving clicking on their assortment of bookmarked neo-Nazi websites. So, for instance, there have been several recent cases of white violence against persons of color, which received no national coverage.

In late April, three seventh graders in Highland, California placed a rope around the head of a biracial child and dragged him around the playground at their school, while yelling racial slurs. (San Bernardino County Sun, 4-26-07) Earlier that same month, in Palm Springs, a neo-Nazi stabbed a black couple outside of a Starbucks, in front of a crowd of two dozen people (Los Angeles Times, 4-6-07). In March, a black couple (one of whom was a pregnant woman) was beaten outside their own home in Merrillville, Indiana, by two white men who yelled racial slurs during the attack and later sprayed the word nigger on their car (Chicago Sun Times, 3-28-07). In Elk Grove, California, a black teen was attacked by five whites, one of whom ran his car into the young man on his bicycle (Sacramento Bee, 3-7-07). In February, two security guards in Stockton, California–one of whom is Asian American and the other black–were attacked by white teenagers who poured gasoline on the road, then lured the guards into the street and threw a Molotov cocktail at them, in an attempt to light them on fire (Stockton Record, 2-11-07). That same month, in Tarpon Springs, Florida, a white man shot at two black men, hitting one of them, while they walked down the road (St. Petersburg Times, 2-8-07). In January, a neo-Nazi in Newport Beach, California attacked a black man in a wheelchair, by pushing him into a lamppost (Orange County Register, 1-25-07). In Bellevue, Washington, two white contractors attacked one of their black coworkers and tried to gouge out his eyes (Seattle Times, 1-4-07). And, in Knoxville, the same month as the murders of Christian and Newsom, a group of whites shoved a black student’s face into a bus window while shouting racial slurs (Knoxville News Sentinel, 1-25-07).

None of these cases received attention nationally, nor could they be expected to (except perhaps the Starbucks stabbing), so the idea that white-on-black hate crimes automatically garner mass publicity is demonstrably absurd.

Hysteria and Hypocrisy: Using Tragedy to Condemn Entire Groups

But what is especially disturbing is how white supremacists and racists use any case of black-on-white crime to “prove” the criminal tendencies of African Americans. Websites like American Renaissance, and neo-Nazis like David Duke regularly report on any such crime they learn of, anywhere in the country, even when there is no apparent racial motivation for the incident, as if to say “see, we told you so–these people are a threat to whites everywhere!” In other words, the criminal acts of a small handful of blacks come to represent blackness in the minds of weak-minded persons, the likes of whom are attracted to such sites and organizations. Lacking the ability to think critically, racists assume that the roughly 5000 blacks who commit murder each year, do so because they’re black, which leaves one to wonder what it is about the other 35 million or so, also black, who don’t?

Racists such as this put forward arguments using techniques that are exactly the opposite of social science, and which instead resemble nothing so much as traditional propaganda. After all, the scientific method begins with a hypothesis and then examines all the evidence, for and against that hypothesis, without presuming to know what the data will suggest in the end. White supremacists, like the ones making such political hay out of the murders of Christian and Newsom, begin with an unshakeable belief–black people are dangerous and out to harm whites–and then find any evidence they can that fits their hypothesis, while discounting all evidence suggesting that their preconceived notions are nonsense.

But nonsense is exactly what they are. Only about two percent (at most) of African Americans will commit a violent crime in a given year, meaning that blacks who commit crime, by definition are not typical within the black community. Likewise, the fact that whites commit the vast majority of serial murders, and are responsible for case after case of corporate misconduct hardly indicates some genetic predisposition to these types of crime either. Not that white supremacists would ever think to make that connection of course, or to draw any conclusions about whites as a group, based on the acts of a small sample of our community.

What racists demonstrate, by virtue of their reactions to horrible crimes like those at Virginia Tech, or the murders of Christian and Newsom in Knoxville, is that they have no scruples whatsoever. Anything that can be used, however dishonestly from an intellectual perspective, to further stoke white racial resentment, fear and hostility, is good, from their perspective. These are people who literally need white people to die at the hands of persons of color. Without such incidents to help whip the masses into a state of racist frenzy, their shtick only grows more and more tired. David Duke wants to see white people victimized by people of color, as do the hate-addled denizens of American Renaissance. If such crimes never occurred, they would have a much harder time convincing whites of what they consider the bottom line: the need to remake the U.S. into an all-white nation. White supremacists care nothing for the victims of these crimes, or for their families. They view both only through the distorted lens of their venal propaganda needs. They should be ashamed. But of course, they won’t be. It’s difficult, after all, to shame those for whom the word has no meaning.

*Although it is true (as white supremacists are quick to point out) that some of the white killers in the FBI crime data are Hispanic/Latino, because government data tends to lump them together racially, there is little reason to doubt that most of the white-on-black murders in the data were “real” whites, even using the racists’ interpretation of the term. Even if we assumed that a third of the 363 white-on-black homicides were committed by Hispanics (a very high estimate), this would mean that 242 were still committed by whites. Irrespective of the final count, the point is, few if any of these crimes receive national media attention, despite racist claims to the contrary. It should also be pointed out, as a side note, that many of the whites killed that year by blacks were also Hispanic, because the FBI lumps whites and Hispanics together in the victim data for homicide as well. So, of the 841 black-on-white homicides that year, many would have not actually involved victims who most would consider “white.”


(1) Gilliam, Franklin D. Jr., Shanto Iyangar, Adam Simon, and Oliver Wright. 1995. “Crime in Black and White: The Violent, Scary World of Local News,” Center for American Politics and Public Policy, Minority Politics Program, Occasional Paper Series, 95-1: September.

(2) Glassner, Barry, 1999. Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. NY: Basic Books: 113.

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