The mass shooting that took place on June 17 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has been the subject of widespread discussion and controversy across the United States. The gunman, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, organized the attack on the basis of racial prejudice, attempting to start a “race war” on people of color. Though anger and sadness have been acknowledged across the country, many believe that early reports failed to recognize the severity of the occurrence.
The brutal attack was initially referred to as a “tragedy” by news reports and regarded as an “accident” by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Mainstream media then had no hesitations in labeling the massacre a “hate crime.” Many were outraged by the fact that the crime was not reported as a terrorist attack, or even regarded as an act of terrorism in general. The media’s misrepresentation of the event can be traced, however, to the reality of white privilege in the United States.
White privilege, which is the combination of social, political and economic privileges that benefit white people in Western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people, is ubiquitous in the U.S. Though many politicians and commentators, such as Bill O’ Reilly, refuse to believe that white privilege is legitimate, the media’s distortion of the shooting can be directly attributed to it. For the most part, white people are not seen or stereotyped as threatening, whereas people of color are deemed to be untrustworthy or violent, even when unarmed, in a white-dominated society.
The media unconsciously excuses the act committed by Roof by saying that such actions are results of a “mental illness” or the exposure of negative stimuli, such as “Internet evil.” On the other hand, New York Times writer John Eligon referred to Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by police in 2014, as “no angel.” Eligon notes that Brown “lived in a community that had rough patches” and had “dabbled in drugs and alcohol.” If Roof had been a black man who attacked a white church, he would very likely be labeled as a “thug.” Derogatory assumptions would then be made based on the color of his skin.
Major news sites, such as Reuters, which included a source calling Roof “quiet and soft-spoken,” and CNN, which addressed a court scene in which the “victim’s kin say, ‘I forgive you,’” unconsciously demonstrate Roof’s white privilege. When an unarmed black teenager is portrayed by news media as more unethical than a white mass murderer, one can assume that society judges individuals using racial stereotypes and prejudice. What happened in Charleston is a blatant act of terrorism and should be treated as such, and the media’s failure to do so is a precise example of how white-washed the U.S. appears to be. Daily Show host Jon Stewart shined mainstream light on this subject, suggesting that if Roof had been Muslim, no one would have hesitated to label the crime as a terrorist attack. Stewart also said, “Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS. They’re not sh*t compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”
White privilege is an urgent and present issue, especially in the diverse communities within USC. Several severe cases of racial profiling have unfortunately taken place around campus. In order to change the overall perceptions of race in this country, we must first acknowledge the existence of white privilege and how people of different colors are treated. Once this phenomenon is universally accepted, we should then take the proper steps to achieve full equality among all races.