As Americans, our relationship to truth and reality is often quite disingenuous. There are plenty of examples where this can be found. Practically any counterstory that presents an honest assessment of the inequality and injustice in this country, particularly directed at people of color, is met with profound resistance and denial. This is to be expected. So many of us, for generations, have bought into the narrative that America is so special, so star-spangled awesome that it’s unfathomable that we could be anything less than the exemplary nation that every other country on the planet wants to emulate. But this refusal to see ourselves for who we really are isn’t serving us well—in fact just the opposite. We cannot live in a perpetual state of ignorance and think we aren’t being grossly harmed by it. If anything, horrific incidents like the mass shooting in Las Vegas should offer us an opportunity to come clean.
By now we know that Stephen Paddock was the gunman who, for reasons not yet clear, decided to open fire on a crowd of people attending a concert on Sunday night. He is being described as a quiet man, a retiree millionaire, with no history of violence that would lead him to commit such an act. In fact, it seems as if the media and the police really want us to believe that, prior to Sunday night, Paddock was a fundamentally decent human being. It should also come as no surprise to us that Paddock was also white. Because only in America would we go to such lengths to avoid criminalizing a wealthy white man even after he murdered almost 60 people and injured hundreds more.
Despite the scale of the attack and Paddock’s being armed with more than 10 rifles, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo immediately dismissed any ties to terrorism, classifying Paddock, a white male from a rural town 80 miles from Las Vegas, as a “local individual” and a “lone wolf.”
We have yet to determine whether Paddock was motivated by anyone or anything, so many are tiptoeing around terms such as “terrorist.” But if Paddock were Muslim, his status as a local individual would be entirely irrelevant, and the motive of “Islamic terrorism” or “jihad” would likely be immediately assumed, even without any evidence.
Even in his death, Paddock is afforded something that, in life, is not afforded to people of color. He gets to be seen as an individual—not as a member of a suspect ethnic identity group, even one that has a history of violence such as white men. And before someone goes “not all white men” here, it is simply a fact that white men are the main perpetrators of mass shootings and domestic terrorism in the United States.
However, no one expects white men to apologize on behalf of all other white men, even though 63 percent of mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by their demographic. While Muslim identity is often tied to terrorism suspicion, whiteness swiftly disconnects individuals like Paddock from other white Americans from any responsibility to disavow, condemn or apologize on behalf of “one of their own.”
Yes, all cultural, racial and ethnic groups have histories of violence. It is, sadly, a function of humanity which scientists say is tied to biology. But more importantly, it is our socialization around race and white supremacy which prevents us from seeing how we inherently assign violence and criminality to people of color and to whites, despite evidence to the contrary. Note how carefully Paddock is being talked about. This is a privilege that is not afforded to black and brown people—not even when we are the victims of violence. This is why media bias allows framing of Paddock as an anomaly.
Many media outlets omitted any description of the Las Vegas shooter’s race; others called his motives mysterious, referred to him as a “cipher,” or focused on his mental state. Reports dutifully quoted the Las Vegas sheriff dismissing motives for terrorism, and treating the case as that of a “distraught person.”
It is also why the media continues to parrot that the fact that this is “the worst mass shooting in American history.” It is not. It’s just that most of the mass shootings in our country which have taken far more lives than Paddock did have involved white people terrorizing and murdering people of color. Apparently, that’s an inconvenient truth that is too much for us to bear.
The unwelcome title of largest massacre might belong to Bear River, Utah, where at least 250 Native Americans were slaughtered in 1863; Native American historical accounts put the number at more than 450. In 1890, Native American men, women and children were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with estimates of the death toll ranging from 150 to 300.
Civilian massacres continued into the 20th century. Just 100 years ago this June, armed whites rampaged through East St. Louis, slaughtering more than 100 African-Americans. In Tulsa in 1921, white mobs attacked a wealthy black neighborhood, killing as many as 300 people and leaving 8,000 homeless in what was wrongly labeled a “race riot” and left out of history texts until recently.
Sure we can chalk this up to media failing to say Las Vegas is the “worst massacre in modern history.” That would help—but it would still be disingenuous. We have a serious problem with race in this country and it is deep-seeded and dangerous. It prevents us from telling the truth about how we perpetuate stereotypes and conflate violence and terrorism with one group but not another. These associations have tangible harmful consequences such as mass incarceration, travel bans, border walls and the rescinding of DACA. Our problem prevents us from recalling the truth about our history in which mass shootings on the part of whites took the lives of hundreds of people of color and instead teaching our kids that this has always been the land of equality and opportunity for all. Our problem allows us to want to humanize a man that we know was in the possession of over 40 guns and thousands of rounds of ammo that harmed hundreds of people. Our problem with race is our country’s legacy— and if we don’t face it, it will also be our undoing.