Thursday, June 5, 2014

When Whiteness Backfires: Isla Vista and the Hidden Cost of Privilege

Anyone who is paying attention has heard by now about Elliot Rodger's killing rampage in Isla Vista last week and about his misogynist and racist motivations. Even the corporate media is happy to talk about these aspects of the situation. As long as there are isolated bad apples (e.g. George Zimmerman, Donald Sterling, and now Rodger) to blame for racism or sexism, there is apparently no need or desire to look deeper or wider. And the corporate media certainly has no appetite for examining the culture of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy that constitutes the real source of these men's worldviews.  This analysis is showing up in the alternative media and blogosphere, so I will just add one perspective that I have not seen, which concerns the role of whiteness, as a source of privilege and an agent of tragedy.

Rodger was a white-identified male. I know he was technically bi-racial. His writings and videos, however, leave little doubt which half of his lineage he identified with and which half have he found despicable. Moreover, his whiteness formed the basis for his feelings of entitlement to the attention of white women and the homicidal resentment he felt when he saw white women hanging out with men of color. In addition, the intersection of his whiteness and his social class were decisive in shaping the way he was treated by the system. One particular incident speaks volumes about the way whiteness (mal)functioned in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.

Either a friend of Rodger or his therapist or someone from his family contacted either the police of the county mental health service because of his disturbing social media posts. Media reports about this notification are vague and inconsistent, but it is clear that the notification did take place because it prompted the police to visit Rodger's apartment on April 30th, one month before the shootings. The police spoke briefly to Rodger at his front door and then departed, having concluded that he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health hold. Sheriff's officials claim that the officers, "handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy."

Let me state, for the record, that I have no quarrel with this official account. Indeed, my critique hinges on the fact that this tragedy happened despite everyone doing what they were supposed to do. Let's begin with the offhand way Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown defended the actions of his officers. Brown said, that when the officers spoke to Rodger at his front door, "He was articulate. He was polite. He was timid." Brown did not say, nor did he need to say, why these factors were considered relevant. Their job, I assume, was to investigate the possibility that Rodger was planning to harm himself or others. What does that have to do with him being articulate, polite, and timid? What if he had been inarticulate, or worse, belligerent, or worse yet black (in which case just being on your front porch may make you suspicious)? Would any of those factors have made him seem more like a threat to himself or others? From what the Sheriff said, it seems that, simply by adhering to the white social norms that signal respectability and self-possession to white-dominated institutions like law enforcement, Rodger was able to override legitimate concerns about his mental health.

Interpersonal whiteness was not the only factor at play, however. Another way Rodger's whiteness protected/doomed him was in terms of his mental health history. Among the reasons cited by authorities for not detaining him was that he had no criminal record or history of mental health crises. But of course he did have a history, one that reflected his race and class privilege. The fact that he had access to private treatment meant that he was able to avoid leaving precisely the sort of institutional track record that would have given the police a legal basis to take more action. It is highly unlikely that a low income man of color with mental health issues could reach 22 years old without having been branded in some way by the system. When people of color are dealing with mental health challenges, school systems often respond with harsh discipline. Behaviors such as truancy and addiction are often criminalized, resulting in young people becoming fodder for the school to prison pipeline. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that the system works for youth of color. Mostly the system works for white people, but, in this case, the privileges of luxury, privacy, and autonomy that go with whiteness simply backfired, taking seven people out in the process.

Finally, we must consider how whiteness protected/doomed Rodger by allowing him to avoid having his home searched by law enforcement. Under prevailing law, the police not only did not have probable cause to seek a search warrant, they could not have confiscated his guns even if they had found them. However, anyone familiar with the way the war on drugs is waged or the stop and frisk practices of big city police departments knows that affluent white communities and low income communities of color are subjected to different standards of probable cause. While the concerns of Rodger's family and therapist about his mental health apparently did not justify searching his home or taking his weapons, in communities of color, all it takes is a tip from an anonymous informant to trigger a SWAT team raid. Indeed, police often end up breaking down the wrong doors, terrorizing and injuring innocent families based on these notoriously unreliable tips. I want to be clear, though, that this double standard is not simply about racist police forces. It is the end product of a complex set of laws and practices that has its roots, ultimately, in the politics of white privilege.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on my argument, let me just spell it out. I am not saying that the white male privilege or misogyny or racism or bad policing or the under-funded mental health system caused the Isla Vista tragedy. It was all of them plus everything else. And, at least part of what made it difficult for anyone to intervene, was the system of visible and invisible protections and privileges afforded to Rodger in virtue of his whiteness. Given that mass shootings committed by alienated, resentful, and aggrieved white men are becoming part of normal life in America, it might be time to consider whether this system, which we white people set up to protect us from scary black and brown others, can protect us from the monsters of our own creation.


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