Last week, a white man murdered three Muslim students living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, allegedly shooting them execution-style. But in contrast to the massive media coverage that accompanied the Charlie Hebdo attacks, mainstream media were almost universally silent.
We all know what the headlines would have looked like had a Muslim murdered three white people: terrorist, anti-American, antithetical to our values. Instead, we saw Craig Stephen Hicks described as a lone wolf, a psychologically disturbed individual whose social context (as a white, American, atheist male) had no impact on his horrific actions. But this is not simply a case of media bias or error: The discrepancy between the mainstream media coverage of the Chapel Hill shooting and comparable actions by Muslim perpetrators reflects a pervasive Islamophobia that runs deep in American society.
To be sure, the bias of the media is dangerous in its own right. But there is a far more serious implication of this consistent behavior: it perpetuates violence against minorities and specifically Muslims. The prejudiced rhetoric is so widely disseminated that many white Americans have come to build their identities upon foundations of racism and Islamophobia. The violence is a side effect; what this racism, which is all-too acceptable both in media portrayal of Muslims and the public rhetoric of elected officials, truly achieves is a concealment and therefore justification of the structural racism and imperialism that is the foundation of Western society.
In Chapel Hill, local police and the wife of the alleged shooter have maintained that the shootings took place because of an ongoing parking dispute. Whether this is the truth or not, the very fact that such an explanation is palatable to mainstream media reflects their bias: white perpetrators deserve explanatory context for their atrocities (consider the media representation of mass shooters, the vast majority of whom are white), whereas Islamic perpetrators are presumed to act out of ideological animus. White murderers are understood as aberrations, while non-white murderer’s actions are explained precisely through their non-whiteness.
This characterization serves an important purpose for mainstream white society and media: it conceals the role of whiteness and American-ness in promoting and legitimating atrocities. As we argue above, violence against non-white persons is a foundational requirement of Western society (just as is violence against Black and indigenous people in America), so the representation of white perpetrators as psychologically deranged is a necessary strategy for concealing, and thereby reproducing, the ideological structure of whiteness that undergirds the violence of people who are labeled as white.
Conversely, when a non-white (and especially Muslim) person commits a crime, he or she is labeled as part of a larger religious or cultural movement, a faceless member of a group or society intent on destroying the “morally superior” values of Western culture. This pretension of moral superiority conceals the truths of the society in which we live. A morally superior nation would not imprison a larger percentage of its minority population than South Africa at the height of apartheid, or extrajudicially murder its black population at roughly the same rate of lynchings in the early 20th century. And yet, we are conditioned by media, education and public rhetoric to ignore or rationalize the white supremacist foundations upon which the American imperial nation sits.
We are taught of the providential destiny of our great democratic nation, of our duty and ultimate sacrifice in a mission to spread democracy abroad. This mission is grounded on a dichotomy of good versus evil, Western values versus eastern fundamentalism. That’s not to say the United States is the most despicable nation on earth. It is certainly more free and fair than many nations, but to revere it as the City upon a Hill requires almost complete ignorance of history.
The battle of good and evil is played out across our televisions, computer screens and, most recently, theaters. American Sniper, the story of the late US Navy Seal Sniper Chris Kyle, heralds this dichotomy amid a dialogue of misguided patriotism. For Kyle, Iraqis are inherently evil (“savages”), fundamentally at odds with the moral mission that American public officials purport to advance. That American Sniper has been a massive commercial success reveals just how pervasive colonialism and Islamophobia are in contemporary American society. If economists are correct that people “vote with their dollars,” millions of Americans seem chillingly ready to vote for killing Iraqi children.
Hicks labeled himself as an anti-theist and strongly condemned organized religion on social media. Some have used this to refute that his act could be a hate crime. Of course, it is too soon to say with certainty what happened in Chapel Hill. But if nothing else, we certainly say this: “The media coverage of Hicks’ unthinkable act would certainly be different if his name were Mohammad.
This is not to draw a strict analogy between the Chapel Hill shootings and any other atrocities, regardless of their perpetrators. But the discrepancy we’ve seen over the past days reveals a bias at the core of American society. And maybe when people vote with their dollars it seems harmless. But when those same dollars are used to fund wars that kill children in the name of liberty, we might all pause and consider whether America’s purported “moral superiority” isn’t just another soldier in the Western war against everyone who isn’t Western.
Associate copy editor Nicholas Reed also contributed to this report.