Caity Colvard gets emotional as she watches a massive response of law enforcement officers at a bomb explosion site at a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday
Thursday Mar 22, 2018 · 4:59 PM EDT
Enough already. That is what we should be saying to the media and to white America about its pathological need to humanize white men who commit mass shootings. It is a pattern that people of color are all too familiar with. It is a pattern that some women can see clearly. But, at this point, it should also be really familiar to anyone who is paying attention. And just like Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez implored us to do when it comes to our excuses about why we can’t have sensible gun control in this country, we need to unequivocally and loudly “call B.S.” each time this happens.
Over the past three weeks, Austin, Tex., has been rocked by a series of mysterious package bombs that killed two people and injured five more. We know now that the police suspect that the bomber was Mark Anthony Conditt, a 23-year-old Austin Community College dropout. Conditt blew himself up on Wednesday as police were closing in on him. And with predictable certainty, the media launched into a series of mind-numbing, willfully ignorant reports in which they obsessively search for answers—imploring us to understand what would make such a nice, normal white boy do such a terrible thing.
Quiet. Normal. Nerdy. From a tight-knit, godly family. Polite. Unremarkable. No criminal record. Challenged. These are some of the adjectives used to describe Conditt in major newspapers across the United States. All of these articles paint him in the same way—a quiet kid that no one could imagine would commit such an atrocity. Relatives say he had conservative views but wasn’t particularly passionate about them. In the endless reporting attempting to explain away his madness, we’ve learned that Conditt was raised in a sleepy, suburban community of less than 60,000 people. His neighbors have good things to say about him and his family. So far, it seems that only one person, as reported in The Houston Chronicle, has suggested that things may not have been as tranquil on the inside of the Conditt home as they appeared.
The Conditts lived in an old part of the town 20 miles north of Austin. They kept their children out of public schools so they wouldn’t see “the bad stuff in society,” said the man, who worked with Conditt’s father and spent time at their home.
“It was a very ‘us versus them’ type of household,” he said. “I’m guessing that was a catalyst that led Mark to believe what he thought.”
The family held regular get-togethers at their East Pfluger Street home. It was “not a cult,” but may have been mistaken for one, the former co-worker said.
The person who said this knew the family well but wished not to be identified. This follows a larger pattern seen again and again when it comes to white male domestic terrorists (and though the media and the current president refuse to say it—let’s plainly call them what they are). Nearly all of them come from suburbia. And if you’ve ever lived in suburbia in America you know that there are some really ugly truths that must be confronted about these supposedly great places to raise kids. The suburbs boomed in America post-World War II. The first scores of suburban residents were people who were eager to leave overcrowded cities and found that, with the expansion of highways and commuter rails, they could afford homes away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This also coincided with the availability of FHA loans which made home ownership a possibility for returning veterans.
In many places, it also coincided with the Great Migration of blacks from the American South into northern cities and out west. And since blacks were subject to all kinds of zoning laws, redlining and routinely (and still are) denied home loans, it was a win for many. White families could leave the city while getting more land and their own homes and also leave black people, recent immigrants and anyone else undesirable behind. Today, America’s suburbs are still mainly white and that’s no accident. And, no, that’s not an assertion that anyone white living in the suburbs is racist and doesn’t want to be around people of color. Very few people would willingly admit to that—even though it is another ugly truth that white people are socialized and conditioned into white supremacy and that supremacy is perpetuated when they live, work and attend schools with people who look just like they do. But this point is instead made to demonstrate that racial segregation was a factor in the creation of suburbs, who moved there and why—and it continues to be. We cannot forget this aspect of racial history as we consider life in the suburbs and what might drive a supposedly nice suburban kid to kill.
The other thing we must remember is that the suburban life is all about aesthetics. Sprawling, perfectly manicured green lawns, picturesque homes, plenty of outdoor spaces for dogs and kids. There is a pleasantness about the suburbs that is supposed to reflect a certain quality of life. So naturally, things that are displeasing and ugly are rarely put on display. Domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, financial problems, troubled kids—these are all problems that plague suburban communities, just as they do urban ones. But no one ever talks about it. You don’t air your dirty laundry in suburbia. You instead ignore problems and suffer in silence on the inside while everything looks pretty on the outside.
Whether it’s because of aesthetics, their own selfishness or this tendency not to rock the boat in signs of trouble, a lot of suburban parents don’t know what the hell is happening with their children. And in a house big enough, you don’t need to be bothered. This is how a boy can live under his parent’s roof and quietly be collecting an arsenal of weapons (as did the Columbine High School shooters) or become an expert bomb maker (as did Mark Anthony Conditt). So it’s high time we start asking important questions about why suburban communities continue to turn a blind eye to the signs of danger and then seemed shocked by white males who display patterns of toxic behavior and then go on a killing spree. It’s also time we ask what is to be gained by continuing to see these incidents as isolated and outliers instead of a deeply entrenched culture of violence perpetrated by angry, white men. And, lastly, it’s time we wrestled with the desire to infantilize these killers by framing them as normal, happy-go-lucky young men who suddenly took a wrong turn somewhere and were inexplicably driven to murder.
You know who doesn’t get this same respect, tender consideration and humanization? Their victims. Particularly when they are victims of color and women.
Two of the victims that Conditt killed and one he severely injured were people of color. For the most part, the media has stopped talking about them to hyper-focus on what went wrong with Conditt. The very first victim, a black man named Stephan House, who was killed when a suspicious package exploded on his doorstep. He was at home with his 8-year-old daughter helping her to get ready for school. Though there was no evidence to suggest it, House was practically accused of setting the bomb himself.
As Olivia Messer reports in The Daily Beast :
Then, police treated House like a suspect in his own death.
“We can’t rule out that Mr. House didn’t construct this himself and accidentally detonate it,” [Austin Police Department] Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon told reporters at the time, noting that there was no continuing threat to the public.
“I do not believe that we have someone going around leaving packages like this,” he said.
In jumping to conclusions and doing what they could to assure the public that there was no threat of harm, the Austin police successfully tarnished the image of a black man who was loved by his family, respected in the community and known for being a hard worker. They also did nothing to protect House’s family—who worried that they may also be targeted for harm. As Messer writes, House’s brother says that the family still doesn’t feel safe.
“My mom does not feel safe,” said [Norrell] Waynewood. “His wife and his daughter do not feel safe. They’ve left their homes.”
“I’d be totally happy if this is the end, I just don’t feel like it is,” he added, noting that his mother is worried Conditt may have had potential accomplices and doesn’t believe police have kept them in the loop on the investigation. […]
“Once he was painted as doing it to himself, people lost respect for him,” he continued. “People stopped offering to help out at the funeral, stopped giving money, stopped helping.”
“Even close friends backed up,” he said.
Even in death, House was not afforded the same respect and consideration that his white killer is being given. Where are the plethora of articles detailing House’s lack of criminal record, devotion to his family or the fact that he played football for Pflugerville High School and was a graduate of Texas State University? The media wants us to know how normal Conditt was. What about his normal victims?
Conditt then went on to kill Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old black male, and injure his mother. He also sent another package bomb that injured Esperanza Herrera, 75-year-old Latina woman. And while police don’t know for sure if his motivations were racial, it can’t be overlooked that three of the packages he sent were to communities of color.
Eric Tang writes in The New York Times:
Whatever the investigation yields, the bombings will forever feel like terror to the city’s longstanding African-American and Latino residents. […]
All three bombings took place east of Interstate-35, Austin’s main artery. East Austin is home to the majority of the city’s African-American and Mexican-American residents, and it is synonymous with minorities and the city’s history of segregation. Indeed, central East Austin, the Masons’ home, was once the heart of the city’s “Negro district,” an area planned by the City Council in 1928 with the express purpose of segregating Austin’s black population during the Jim Crow era. Most of the city’s Mexican-Americans were relegated to an area just to the south. By the end of the 20th century, gentrification pushed many of those Mexican-American families from this area to points further east, including the Montopolis neighborhood, where Ms. Herrera lives.
Our society is so quick to demand that people of color wait for answers in an investigation to determine whether a crime by a white male is racially motivated and slow to come up with answers. It’s as if we haven’t figured out that racialized violence is a longstanding pattern just like mass shootings by white men are. But we are really quick to explain away the behaviors of killers and protect white manhood—at the expense of victims and the rest of our society.
This past week also saw another school shooting committed by a white male, this time at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland. How is that shooter being described? Well, apparently he was just lovesick and that’s what drove him to shoot the object of his affection.
As per The Washington Post:
Tuesday’s school shooting in southern Maryland that left the shooter dead and two students wounded increasingly appears to be the action of a lovesick teenager. […]
The St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that [Austin Rollins, the shooter] and [Jaelynn Willey] had been in a relationship that recently ended. Authorities had previously only said that the two had had a relationship of some sorts.
“All indications suggest the shooting was not a random act of violence,” police said in a statement.
Lovesick teenagers don’t kill people. Back in my day, when you were lovesick, you stayed in your room and made mix (cassette) tapes with sad songs that reminded you of the person you were pining away for. Plenty of people can describe the agony of heartbreak at age 17. Its awful, for sure. But trying to justify this as a young white boy who just snapped out of the blue because of a breakup ignores this dangerous pattern we see again and again. It also sugarcoats the gender-based violence in this attack—an all too real phenomenon experienced regularly by women-identified people around the world.
Again, with frightening regularity, we see the same attempt to humanize Rollins. Of course, no one in his community seemed to sense anything or have an idea that this might be coming. He is being described as a good kid, quiet and from a good family. According to Evan Lambert from Fox 5 DC:
Many residents said 17-year-old Austin Wyatt Rollins came from a good family and all of their interactions with him were positive. […]
“He was a good kid,” said Toni Foreman. “He played with my son and his cousins when they were out there playing football during the summertime. He would help shovel snow whenever we were all out here shoveling snow. For Halloween and stuff, they would always have candy out for the kids. I never ever had any issues with him at all whatsoever.”
What is happening is incredibly dangerous. We have a serious problem with gun violence in this country. But we also have a major problem with toxic white male masculinity that repeatedly results in atrocities and mass casualties. And the media does everything it can to gloss over it while white America acts as if these incidents are exceptions to the rule instead of the norm. This is no doubt a reflection of the fact that who decides and reports the news is mostly white and male themselves. But this cannot continue to stand.
The obsession with regularizing white male mass shooters is ignoring a wider social, cultural, racial and gender issue that we cannot afford to ignore. It is downright negligent. But it also really highlights a terrible reality—you can be a mediocre, angry, violent white man and kill because the desire strikes you. And, still, every attempt will be made to justify and recognize your humanity. No one will ask questions about or reflect on a culture that allows you to be that way. No one will give national attention to your victims because they will be too busy searching for answers that will never come. No one will make the link to a wider culture of white supremacy and patriarchy that breeds violence and murder. No one will call it terrorism—even though that’s exactly what it is. And if you know that, there is nothing to stop you from doing it.
The protection of the status quo, and above all, white manhood in America comes at a terrible price. Let’s call it out and put it plainly there for all of us to see. Now that we have looked it in the face and can see it on a regular basis, what are we going to do about it?