What happened is, at this point, eerily familiar.
After a white man killed and injured hundreds of people, he was referred to as a “unique individual,” a “lone wolf,” an “unusual perpetrator.” He was declared “mentally ill.” We were told that he was “descending into madness.” Although there is a reported history of him harassing his girlfriend, the media uses their energy to explain that she was “madly in love with him”—conveniently glossing over the link between domestic abuse and gun violence.
White men who seek to kill us in large numbers are represented as nuanced individuals. Foreign-born brown and black men who do the same are painted as one-dimensional villains.
Study after study reveal the link between white extremism and acts of public violence. In 2015, the New York Times reported that nearly twice as many people were killed by “white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists” than by Muslim terrorists since the September 11th attacks. A 2017 Mother Jones study found that white men had committed a majority of mass shootings since 1982. The Nation’s Investigative Fund and the Center for Investigative Reporting this year concluded a study finding that there were nearly two times as many right-wing extremist terrorist incidents in the U.S. between 2008 and 2016 as there were incidents by Islamic extremists.
These studies are echoed by the warnings of federal agencies—many of whom are similarly troubled by the rising tide of white supremacist violence. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned in May that white supremacists were likely to become the most prominent extremist threat in the country. The FBI considers white supremacist groups as great a threat to the nation as ISIS.
But these statistics and statements seem to disappear in mainstream media coverage of acts of white supremacist violence and in responses by public figures. Studies show that attacks by people claiming to be Muslim received 449 percent more coverage on average in recent years than those perpetrated by virtually anyone else—and that even when attacks by white men are covered, media outlets focus more on explanatory details of the attack and save broad sweeping terms like “terrorism” or “extremism” for coverage of attacks by Muslim and brown folks. And, since Trump took office more people in the U.S. have been killed by white men than by Muslim extremists, immigrants or refugees.
This racist media coverage plays a key role for politicians and corporations. Erroneously linking Islam and violence stirs up xenophobic sentiment across the nation and thus increases support for policies like the Muslim ban. As well, refusing to give white male violence the same scrutiny as other forms of terrorism at home and abroad proves pivotal for NRA proponents and politicians who rely on their robust fundraising during campaign season.
In the wake of mass shootings, advocates are right to quickly point out how few politicians are willing to stand up to the gun lobby and fight for common-sense gun reform. But even gun control is not enough. Psychologist Terry Real has said that a gun is the most extreme version of toxic masculinity—something too many women know from lived experience. And in a landscape where white supremacists see fit to descend upon entire communities with torches surrounded by armed militia, the extent to which white supremacy manifests as domestic terrorism is also becoming all too clear—after far too long.
We’re fighting a familiar but suddenly more stark kind of terror now—and to win, we must work to dismantle white supremacy and toxic masculinity. A strong start would be acknowledging the ways in which they’ve made us unsafe not just at home, but in shared community spaces—from movie theaters to elementary schools to the Vegas strip.