Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?

By
Robert Louis Dear; Dylann Roof. Photo: Gett Images; Corbis

On Friday, November 27, a 57-year-old white man named Robert Louis Dear allegedly injured nine people and killed three in a shooting spree at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Among those shot were four police officers, one of whom died. As several media outlets and many on social media noted, Dear was given the opportunity to surrender peacefully, just like convicted mass shooter James Holmes, and alleged Charleston mass shooter Dylann Roof, both of whom are white, and very much unlike the black men, many of them unarmed and not engaged in criminal activity, who nonetheless have been shot and killed by law enforcement in just the past couple of years: Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, John Crawford III, Freddie Gray, Rumain Brisbon, Walter Scott, Eric Harris …

By Monday, reporters had begun to gather information on Dear’s past, including allegations of assault, rape, animal cruelty, and being a peeping tom. A Washington Post story detailed at least eight episodes in which Dear “had disputes or physical altercations with neighbors or other residents.” Yet the headline of the Post story practically conveyed a kind of tenderness, with its description of Dear as “adrift and alienated.” An early version of a New York Times report went further, leading with a description of the shooter as “a gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts toward neighbors and women he knew.” The Times, which has since produced some of the best and most thorough reporting on Dear, soon changed the careless wording of its initial story.

But what the earliest attitudes toward a man who allegedly sprayed bullets into 12 people — people who were parents, cops, friends, husbands, wives, Iraq War veterans — show us is the reflexive sympathy, interest, and dignity that we as a nation, our law enforcement and our media, are capable of extending even to those who commit monstrous acts.

Provided that those monstrous actors are white men.

It is, of course, correct and just that Colorado Springs officers made such efforts to take Robert Dear alive. It’s also perfectly humane to acknowledge that individuals are capable of containing troubling contradictions: that even criminally aggressive people may be lonely. But the notion that we might understand a person with the capacity for violence to also have the capacity for gentleness is downright laughable set against the contemporary backdrop of state violence committed against black men. An ability to consider Robert Louis Dear as a complex and compelling figure, one whose motivations might be worthy of our curiosity, highlights our lack of curiosity about, and certainly our lack of compassion for, all kinds of nonwhite, non-male figures who might themselves be adrift or alienated.    

Robert Louis Dear’s alleged murder spree happened, after all, in the same week that protesters marched in response to the release of video that showed Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black teenager, walking down the middle of a Chicago street, at a slow pace and a solid distance from police, nevertheless getting shot to death by those cops. McDonald was spared so little sympathetic acknowledgment that, as is plain on the video, he lay dying without a single officer approaching him to offer help or comfort. His life, his nature, his very humanity was accorded so little value that it took over a year for his death, by 16 bullets, to be treated as a murder by authorities. Here is what I have read about Laquan McDonald: He had PCP in his system and was carrying a three-inch knife at the time of his killing.

It’s a stark contrast that plays out all around us, the horrifying product of a culture, of a media, and of social, economic, and political structures that teach us to value white men more than any other kind of human beings. White men are our norm; we are told practically from birth, via the books we’re read and the television we watch and the history we learn, that their existence stands in for human existence. White men’s contradictions, priorities, and personalities are sifted, sorted, nudged at, explored, described. They’re the figures that drive our fictions and our facts. We are shown regularly their strengths, their failings, their flaws, their complexities, the full range of their humanity. Other kinds of people may exist around them, as subsidiary characters, but the status of these others is secondary, their internal dimensions compressed and more swiftly caricatured.

To be sure, white men may be charged, tried and convicted; they may be regarded as brutish criminals. But they can be simultaneously understood as human beings, driven by conflicting emotions, able — even in their criminality — to have experienced loss and confusion and anger and love, emotions we do not imaginatively afford America’s poor and black, the men and women who often find their way into our news cycles simply by having the audacity to live in a world that was not built for and around them.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Recall earlier this summer, when Roof, the 21-year-old white man charged with killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, was arrested after fleeing the scene. Cops described him at the time of capture as “very quiet, very calm … not problematic.” Roof told the cops he was hungry, so they bought him lunch at Burger King.

Which, I hasten to add, is the humane and correct way to treat a prisoner. But it’s not the way most people who have run-ins with law enforcement are treated.

In the same month that Roof quietly ate his Burger King after killing nine people, 15-year-old Dajerria Becton attended a Texas pool party and got into a fight after some white kids reportedly told a black girl to “go back … to Section 8” housing. When white cop Eric Casebolt arrived on the scene, he slammed Becton to the pavement, grabbing her violently by her braids. Later reports helped us understand that Casebolt had been particularly stressed that day, having already attended to two suicide calls. But Becton, the black teenager, was described by Fox News host Megyn Kelly as “no saint,” for having not obeyed the officer. There was little curiosity about Becton’s experience of having been held roughly by her hair while wearing only a bathing suit, just the pressing question about white-male psychology: What could this one-dimensional black girl have done to make the multidimensional white man react in the way that he did?

It goes on and on: After 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, the New York Times famously asserted that the teenager was “no angel.” After 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray died from spinal injuries after having been arrested, dragged roughly into a van, and driven around the city without a seatbelt by Baltimore police, CNN described him, stunningly, as “the son of an illiterate heroin addict” and “a symbol of the black community’s distrust of the police.” Curiosity about this man extended only to his relationship to things Americans recognize as deviant — illiteracy and addiction — and to his usefulness as a symbol, not as a full human being whose life was lost and mourned by family or friends. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by cops while playing with a toy gun, he and his family were regarded as so far from discernibly human that when his 14-year-old sister ran to help him as he bled, cops forced her to the ground, cuffed her, and placed her in a police car.

And these are not, of course, unusual examples. In a 2014 study that has now been cited often, researchers found that police officers were more likely to dehumanize black boys and men, to see them as older and more dangerous than they are, and to confer on white young men a presumption of innocence. These dynamics persist well beyond instances of violence, as we struggle to find the humanity in some kinds of people, while easily dismissing others.

We learned an awful lot about the childhood of white Colorado-movie-theater shooter James Holmes, in part because he was arrested and brought to trial. During that trial, we learned that Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, called his mother “Goober” and his father “Bobbo” as a child. One (very compelling) Los Angeles Times story about Holmes’s devastated parents evoked their horror at watching the trial of “their awkward little boy turned murderous man.”

This kind of reporting is not bad; it is crucial that we explore the psychological development of human beings who turn violent, as well as those who are felled by and affected by violence. The urge to tell their stories, to try to make sense of their paths is natural.

What’s wrong is our failure to give equal time, energy, emotional and narrative consideration to the experiences of those figures who are not white and male. Why might Dajerria Becton not have listened to the cop? What had her morning been like? Besides being the son of an illiterate heroin addict, who was Freddie Gray? A CNN story attempting to answer that question made sure to note his long rap sheet before getting to a few confirming details about a brother lost to street violence and the lead poisoning he and his siblings suffered as children. It did not address the possibilities that Gray might have felt alienated, adrift, that he might have been gentle, stressed, or hungry.

Race, in combination with class, is especially powerful at removing certain kinds of people from the scope of our empathy and interest, but gender can perform the same trick. Recall the time that the New York Times covered the gang rape of an 11-year-old Texas girl by a group of teenaged boys, and reflected the wonder of residents at how “their young men [could] have been drawn into such an act,” also taking care to quote some neighbors fretting about how the accused boys would “have to live with this for the rest of their lives.” The 11-year-old girl was depicted as having invited these young men to go astray: She wore makeup and dressed older than her age. “Where was her mother?” some local residents wondered about another subsidiary female, whose indirect actions surely also got these boys into trouble.

In the abortion debate, too, women are simply not central to some American estimations of humanity, so much so that feminists have long posed the rhetorical question: Are Women Human? Take Marco Rubio speaking about how “you’ll recognize [a fetus] as a human being” at five months gestation, while not recognizing women who have been raped or experienced incest as human enough to be allowed to access abortion services. At least he hasn’t gone as far as some of his Republican colleagues, who have shown little shame in recent years about comparing women to cows, pigs, and chickens or to caterpillars.

It’s not that white men themselves are always the ones placing higher value on the white-male experience. It’s that all of us — women and people of color and every sort of non-white-male variant — work and read and think and talk within a system that measures worth on a white-male scale. This is how, as of this summer, more than a third of 2015’s top-grossing films had not managed to pass the Bechdel test, which means that they did not include more than two female characters with names, talking to each other about something other than men. It’s actually a pretty low bar for acknowledging humanity in female characters, and more than a third of this year’s hit movies did not clear it.

This is what writer Claire Vaye Watkins was getting at in her recent, widely read essay in the literary magazine Tin House. In it, she writes about writer and Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott, whom she hosted when she was an MFA student. She describes her horror at discovering that after his visit, Elliott had publicly described one of her male peers by his full name, acknowledging his writing, his forthcoming book, his teaching career, and his children, all while referring to Watkins — also a writer, with an agent and book in the works — only by her first name, as a student with “a big, comfortable bed” who had turned down his advances.

As Watkins notes in her essay, “professional sexism via artistic infantalization is a bummer … distinct and apart from those violent expressions of misogyny widely agreed upon as horrific: domestic violence, sex slavery, rape.” But, she went on, “sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement … more than of a piece, it is practically a prerequisite … You cannot beat the mother of your children, or rape your childhood friend while she’s unconscious, or walk up to a sorority outside Santa Barbara and start shooting without first convincing yourself and allowing our culture to convince you that those women are less than human.”

This point, made so sharply by Watkins, is a serious argument for why — even in this season of gibbering about over-the-top political correctness — we must acknowledge the real costs of small injuries perpetrated by institutions and pop culture, simply by continuing to put white men at life’s fulcrum. This is why even the stuff that feels worlds away from police violence and abortion-clinic shootings matters. It’s why it matters when a white male actor talks over a successful black female filmmaker, explaining diversity to her. It’s why it matters when a newspaper prints an obituary of a pioneering female rocket scientist that kicks off with the fact that she made a “mean beef stroganoff,” followed her husband, and was a great mom to her son, all before mentioning that she had also “invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

It matters because it shows us all the ways in which we live in a world made for and shaped around white men. And in aggregate, when the statues are of white men, the buildings and cities and bridges and schools are named after white men, the companies are run by white men and the movie stars are white men and the television shows are about white men and the celebrated authors are white men, the only humanity that is presented as comprehensible — the kind that succeeds and fails, that comprises strength and weakness, that feels love and anger and alienation and fear, that embodies nuance and contradiction, that can be heroic and villainous, abusive and gentle — is the humanity of white men. The repercussions of this kind of thinking? Well, maybe they explain some of what we see on the evening news.