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Chapel Hill and the Racialization of Murder


I remain very disturbed by the entire set of circumstances surrounding the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina this past February. I cannot seem to shake not only the horror but the anger that has arisen within me in the aftermath of the murder.

It is not simply the brutality of the killings, though that is enough to unsettle anyone. After all, the three students were, in effect, executed with bullets to their heads. What particularly unsettles me has been the manner in which much of the mainstream media (a) initially ignored the murders, and later (b) sought to find a way to explain the murders away as anything but the hate crimes that they were.

The response in the mainstream media and political circles to the killings should not have come as a surprise. It was only an ‘uprising’ on Twitter that compelled the mainstream media to pay attention to the murders in the first place.

Yet what is worth examining is the manner in which the mainstream media and political circles were willing to treat the killings as terrible but unusual. This includes, by the way, the baffling response of the White House whereby they initially refused to issue any specific comment.

Only a few short days later, however, shootings in Copenhagen resulted in an almost instantaneous response by the media as soon as the shooter was identified as carrying out the attacks for political/religious reasons and, of course, was a Muslim. In Chapel Hill, however, we were offered an alternative explanation for the killings focusing on an alleged fight around a parking space. A parking space? Despite evidence offered that the students had earlier been made to feel very uncomfortable by the alleged murderer, the mainstream media proceeded to treat the parking space explanation as if it has any genuine credibility.

There is a consistent pattern in the manner in which racial murder is handled by the mainstream white media and political circles. Although the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 was not exclusively aimed against people of color, what remains fascinating is that the initial assumption was that it was a terrorist attack by a Muslim. When, however, it was discovered that this was a home-grown white, right-wing terrorist attack, the entire discourse on the attack changed.  The mainstream white media became interested in the motivations of the terrorist—Timothy McVeigh—and desperately attempted to seek an explanation as to how and why he would have conducted such an attack. Rather than focusing on the horror of the attack, or the fact that there is a well-organized and well-armed white, right-wing populist movement in the USA, attention was paid to Timothy McVeigh in almost psychological terms.  There is no comparable example when a military or terrorist action has been carried out by a person of color or a Muslim.

There is also something else that does not happen:  there is no generalization whenever there is a terrorist action carried out by a white right-winger. There were no vast and extensive conclusions about white men as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing, nor where there any questions about Christians.  In fact, I have no memory of Christian religious leaders being asked to distance themselves from McVeigh, his actions, or the paramilitary political right-wing.  In almost every case, when terrorism is conducted by white right-wingers, mainstream media and political circles do all that they can in order to isolate the experience; to treat it as if it were exceptional rather than part of a larger pattern.

The killing of the three Muslim students in Chapel Hill is, in fact, part of a larger pattern. We see it in the demagogic attacks on mosque construction; we see it in racial profiling; we see it in harassment and killings; and, yes, we have seen it in the aftermath of killings. In fact, one of the scariest aspects of the Chapel Hill murders were some of the responses on the web where individuals supported the murders, and in some cases, called for more.

And now the Chapel Hill murders seem all but forgotten. It is as if they happened, not a few weeks ago, but more like a few years ago. There has been no further discussion and comment. The White House finally spoke out on the killings, calling them brutal, but was not prepared to address them as hate crimes.

The racialization of murder, which is what we have seen in the case of Chapel Hill, can only take place when the subjected population—in this case Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs—are seen as an indistinguishable mass of scary outsiders.  Their experiences are not legitimate, as far as the mainstream is concerned. It is less a question of whether the ‘Other’—in this case Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs—are considered or thought to be inferior.  It is more, according to the neo-racism with which we live, that this population is unacceptable in that it cannot be absorbed. They are not accepted as “white” but are, in effect, de facto enemy aliens, irrespective of their point of origin.

In this environment there must be responses and not simply the shaking of our heads and hands. First, those who tweeted must be applauded.  Utilizing social media to carry out an ‘uprising’ is proving, time and again, an effective means to contribute to the reshaping of the news. This must be expanded.

Second, progressive opinion-makers in every major media market need to be identified to respond in the mainstream and alternative media in cases such as the Chapel Hill murders. We need letters to the editor, op-eds, call-ins, TV interviews, etc., by progressive opinion-makers on these issues. In doing this, it is critical to reshape the story and, among other things, that means introducing history into our narratives. People in the USA are almost allergic to history…until they are exposed to a genuine, historical analysis. Progressives must put incidents, such as the Chapel Hill murders, in an historical context. We should also identify the manner in which the handling of such incidents contrasts with media and political coverage of actions carried out by ‘suspect populations.’

A third response, particular to the circumstances in Chapel Hill, is that we must develop campaigns that identify such murders as the hate crimes and lynchings that they are. That means more than statements to the media, whether mainstream or social. It means actions that are taken to demand that the authorities prosecute such incidents expeditiously and energetically. We need no repeats of the travesty demonstrated in the case of the Ferguson grand jury whereby the prosecutor, for all intents and purposes, adopted a position of agnosticism.

Nothing will bring back Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salhausband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Nothing will ease the pain, sorrow and frustration of their families and friends. It is through, however, a struggle around the racialization of murder that we have the opportunity to change not only the manner in which crimes are addressed, but the fact that certain types of crimes are implicitly tolerated by the larger society. You see, after all, the crime only happened to “them”…

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice writer and activist.  Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Chester Ga March 6, 2015 2:51 pm 

    You’ve conflated race with religion.

    While both are sociological constructs, they differ in the way they are applied to individuals. We commonly believe that race is not something a person can choose, but that religion is. To the extent that any sociological condition can be applied to others, people often make “errors” in the application of the sociological construct.

    Examples of these misapplications have occurred many times in the past, so we don’t have to imagine scenarios. Take, for example, Homer Plessy. As plaintiff in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, everyone was in agreement that Plessy would easily have passed for a “White” under Louisiana law. It was only Plessy’s insistence that he was “Colored” and that the law in question required him to change seats that forced the question.

    After the September 11 crimes in New York and Washington, Americans who were unfamiliar with distinctions between Arab, Punjabi, Muslim, and Sikh indiscriminately attacked people based on the assumption that anyone with a turban must be Muslim, and presumably Arab.

    The reality, at last under United States law, is that both sociological constructs can be freely chosen and both may be mistakenly applied. US law regarding race now allows a person to choose from a list of racial choices or decline to commit to a specific race at all. The same may be said of religious affiliation. It should be noted that neither “Klingon” nor “Jedi Knight” are possible choices, though you are free to self-identify as such.

    If one wants to see the absurdity of these choices, one need only look at the laws as they apply to Indigenous Peoples. As David Truer discusses in Rez Life, the laws that assigned tribal affiliation were reversed. In order to prove that your Ojibwe-ness was (is) legal, you have to show that you have 1/2 degree blood quantum, while affiliation with the Kaw Nation requires only 1/32 degree blood quantum. As Truer notes, this is different from the way “racial affiliation” was determined in the past for other groups. The one-drop rule applied to many classification schemes, so that having one drop of “black/Jewish/Roma blood” was all that was required to make you part of that particular group.

    It should be noted that as science and recordkeeping improved in the United States, Southern lawmakers moved towards the blood quantum laws for all races, else there would have been very few white Southerners at all. Everyone would have been riding in the colored cars in Louisiana.

    For all of the celebration that the USA had finally elected an African-American to the Oval Office, the bigger fact may have been that another descendent from European royalty was elected that day as well. By supporting the fiction that is race in our critiques of violence, I wonder if we don’t do harm to the idea that we are human first.

    The murders in Chapel Hill, Moscow, and Dhaka are troubling to me, not because the murdered were Muslim, liberal Russian, or Atheist, but because they reveal the violent side that emotions play in human society.

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