The United States has been experiencing an unprecedented and terrible uptick in rampage violence over the last few years, with mass shootings across the nation in a wide variety of locales. It’s awful, and every time one occurs, the media focus on it, dissecting every detail, demonising mental illness, luridly reporting on every imaginable aspect, hounding victims, survivors, and their families, and descending upon the region with every van, truck, and warm body it can find. Until the next, when the trucks pack up and bound off to another region of the country for the next big story, and the next, and the next, and so on.
Rampage violence gets major headlines and it captures the attention of the public. Of course it does; we’re talking about multiple people, sometimes a very large number of people, shot down in cold blood simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a disruption of daily life, a reminder that bad things happen to good people, and a destabilisation of the belief that we are safe in places like offices, schools, and movie theatres. It’s scary, and people get caught up in emotional turmoil as they watch the shooting and its aftermath unfold on the screen.
Because most rampage violence involves guns. And when rampage violence is in the news, usually there’s talk of tightening gun control laws and a larger discussion about US gun culture, but what you don’t see is how such violence fits into a larger framework of gun violence in the US. Because every day, around the country, people are dying as a result of gun violence, and those people rarely, if ever, make it into the news. And there’s a reason for that.
Those people are primarily low-income, and they are primarily people of colour. In Chicago, for example, gun violence plagues the city, and it’s not uncommon for multiple people, mostly young Black men, to be shot in a single evening, especially on the weekends and particularly in the summer months. In Oakland, guns flood the streets and so do the deaths of young men. These aren’t the only cities with significant gun violence problems, nor are they the only regions where young men of colour are dying because of a horrific collision between gun culture, racism, and society; let us take note of the young men shot by white men simply for existing, for example, and how white men defend these murders with ‘stand your ground’ laws.
This is a country where the lives of young men of colour are deemed utterly valueless. The media don’t bother to report on them except for, perhaps, a passing mention in a regional publication, because what’s the point. No one wants to read about that kind of thing anyway, and certainly no one wants to connect the dots between their deaths and the larger cultural factors at work here. As people mourn their dead and struggle with the loss of their children, they receive no attention or support from the outside world, and even as they deal with an epidemic of violence in their communities, they see no calls for action like the ones that follow mass shootings.
In the wake of such events, commentators of colour and their communities point out that the problems with gun violence in the US run far deeper than rampage violence, but they’re often ignored, or their work to address the issue is pushed to the side in the name of focusing on ‘the bigger issue,’ which is to say, the latest mass shooting. Yet, the bigger issue is actually the slow and steady attrition going on in cities across the country where being a young man of colour is extremely dangerous, where you could be shot by police or a righteous white civilian or caught up in the crossfire of a random act of violence. This is the issue we need to be confronting and resolving it isn’t as simple as pushing through some hasty quick-fix laws.
Because racism is at the core of this issue, both in terms of why it is happening and in terms of how we are responding to it as a society. If this kind of death rate were occurring in the white community, with multiple young men and women dying every weekend in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, there would be outrage. Task forces. Action items. A corresponding urgency to get to the bottom of the situation and resolve it quickly and effectively, to confront the cultural and legal problems that were allowing the violence to flourish and continue.
But instead, white people turns their faces on the parade of deaths and the endless stream of funerals, the families struggling to pay for the costs associated with burying their loved ones while keeping everyone else fed and clothed. Because economic and social disparities in this country fall out starkly along racial lines and these issues need to be confronted to truly stop the tide of gun violence in this country. By distracting ourselves with handwringing over every incident of rampage violence, we miss the much larger and much more troubling picture of the reality of life in a country where some lives are considered worth more than others, and have been for a long time.
It is not a coincidence that a population formerly taken and used in slavery isn’t worthy of headlines when it’s in the grips of what is effectively a public health crisis. It is not a coincidence that the same people who perform the dirtiest and most unwanted tasks in this society are of least interest when they’re killed off. It is not a coincidence that people are fixated on white mass killers and their mystique to the exclusion of the violence and suffering that’s being tolerated in the streets of so many US cities.