As I wade through reports of the horrific mass shooting that killed 59 people and wounded over 500 others in Las Vegas, I am sorrowful, empathetic, and afraid.
Afraid because repeated mass shootings have left me numb to the horror of the moment. Afraid because I wonder whether I’ve lost a measure of empathy I’ll never get back. Afraid because my questions compete with my prayers for the dead.
Like anyone, I am anxious to know why the shooting happened and how we can prevent such horrors in the future. As a black man, though, I have queries that are different from those on the other side of America’s racial divide. First among them: Was the shooter black? Second: How does race shape the media coverage? Third: Why do I have to ask those first two questions?
The answer, quite simply, is racism.
For African Americans, the lens of inequality is ever before us, even in moments of national tragedy. And so, as we view the coverage of a shooting committed by a well-to-do white man such as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, we scrutinize the stories carefully. Then we pull out our measuring stick.
We compare the humanizing stories of Paddock’s good-time gambling to the darkened Time magazine cover designed to make O.J. Simpson look sinister after he was accused (and ultimately acquitted) of killing two people. We view the pictures of Paddock’s companion—a woman of color—and wonder why there weren’t more pictures of Paddock himself. We learn that Paddock’s father was a bank robber who spent years on the FBI’s most wanted list, and we wonder why that wasn’t mentioned more.
Then, even as we join our fellow Americans in mourning for those whose lives were lost, we cluck our tongues and grumble that the coverage would be different if a mass murderer such as Paddock were black.
And I would venture to say we’re right to make that assumption.
When we witness President Trump’s outrage at the sight of black NFL players kneeling in peaceful protest during the national anthem, and compare it with Trump’s subdued reaction to a white man killing nearly 60 Americans, the difference is stark.
When we see America’s reluctance to condemn Paddock as an “animal,”a “thug” or a “terrorist,” as black criminals are so often labeled, the difference is stark.
When we realize that even Russians understand that an image of white Americans with guns is considered patriotic, while the specter of African Americans with guns is considered frightening, the difference is stark.
Those very different perceptions cause anger in the black community. But the underlying racism that fuels them endangers us all.
While the Trump administration fights tooth and nail to maintain a travel ban that affects black and brown people from countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America, the people who pose the biggest threat to America go largely unwatched and unchecked.
That’s because since 1982, white men have committed 54 percent of the mass shootings in America. Those statistics, published by Newsweek, are troubling. But so is our reluctance to challenge white male privilege.
If someone had watched Paddock with the same level of interest that law enforcement gives to armed people of color, perhaps this tragedy could have been averted.
And make no mistake. Paddock was worthy of scrutiny.
A man who was neither a hunter nor a collector should not have been able to amass 49 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition without arousing any curiosity at all. But in a society where the priority is the overpolicing of people of color and the comfort of well-to-do white men such as Paddock, no questions were raised.
Paddock should not have been able to shuttle 23 weapons into a hotel suite without raising even the slightest suspicion. He should not have been able to break two hotel windows without someone coming to check on the damage.
If Paddock were black, brown, or Muslim, his behavior would have sounded alarms. But since he was a white man of means, he got a pass.
If we are to be safe as a society, we must face the fact that a threat can come in any color, hail from any belief system or originate from any background.
Banning brown people who are from other parts of the world does not protect us. Dealing with the obvious threats among us does. Until we face that reality, and subject everyone to the same kind of scrutiny, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, these horrific shootings will keep happening.
None of us wants that.