In the past few weeks, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino have joined the contemporary American lexicon as shorthand terms for mass shootings. These locales will live in infamy alongside Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech.
You can see the deep rifts that define American culture in the diametrically opposed ways various media outfits and grandstanding politicians represent the perpetrators of these horrific crimes. This divide goes beyond the argument between the NRA, with its thoughts-and-prayers-but-no-laws brigade of bought-and-paid-for pols, and people who want to enforce that pesky "well-regulated" part of the Second Amendment.
Differences in how criminals from different backgrounds are depicted by the media and by politicians should be front and center in this conversation.
Robert Lewis Dear, in Colorado Springs, is an individual madman, we are led to believe, and his motives might not have anything to do with vituperative political discourse that demonizes Planned Parenthood. We are told that we must wait for the trial, for the facts to come out before making any judgments. On the other hand, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the killers in San Bernardino, were depicted and understood as radicalized Muslim terrorists almost immediately.
However their motives are eventually explicated (and it will be tougher with Farook and Malik, given their deaths), I guarantee one thing: Robert Lewis Dear will continue to be considered an aberrant individual, while many will insist that Farook and his wife represent all Muslims.
Why? It's a pattern of thought I've recognized over two decades of teaching representations of racism and classism in my American literature courses, an idea I call the Logic of Prejudice.
It works like this: If you are a member of a dominant group, you are always an individual. If you are a member of a marginal group, your identity is always the group identity as understood by the people who feel prejudice toward that group.
I use the term "prejudice" rather than sexism, racism, or homophobia because one can be preinclined favorably or negatively toward various identities. But in either case, when prejudice plays out, the individual's identity is subsumed in the group identity.
When I talk about this with my students, I use three examples—three individuals whose stories exemplify this dynamic in action.
The first example is the prodigy Sho Yano, who illustrates the Logic of Prejudice from a putatively positive angle. Yano began college at the age of 9, and in 2013, at the age of 21, became the youngest person ever to get a medical degree from the University of Chicago. He did his undergraduate work at Loyola University Chicago, near where I live, and he perfectly fits one positive prejudice: the idea of Asian Americans as the "model minority," all hardworking high achievers. Yano's life story was in the local papers and was the talk of the neighborhood. I heard more than one local barstool commentator utter the key phrase that shows prejudice in action: "Well, what would you expect from one of them?" If anyone is going to go to college that young, it will be an Asian American, not one of us Irish or German American Chicago kids. You know, them Asians are all good at math!
Yano's individual identity, his unique personality, his inner motivations, his likes or dislikes—none of that mattered. All that mattered was his Asian American ethnicity.
(Note: All "positive" prejudices are the obverse of negative ones. The Asians-are-good-at-school positive image is the flip side of the Asians-aren't-individuals-like-us negative prejudice. Some Celtic examples: The Irish are a poetic people; the Irish spew blarney and cannot be trusted. The Scots are thrifty; Scotsmen are cheap. Exact same structural prejudice, expressed positively or negatively.)
The second example is Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the largest mass shooting in US history. (As of this writing. By press time, who the fuck knows?) After he massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech, and then killed himself, back in 2007, I read more than one essay by Korean Americans hoping that people would not see Cho as representative of all of them. Edward Taehan Chang wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that "the Korean American community here still vividly remembers how the mainstream media portrayed Korean immigrant merchants as gun-toting vigilantes, defending their stores as Los Angeles burned in 1992—and we are still trying to overcome that stereotype."
The only reason anyone would equate Cho with all Koreans is that Koreans are a marginal group, where any one person represents everyone in that group.
(Note: I did not see anyone write about how Cho did not represent all English majors. A college major is chosen, idiosyncratic, and ephemeral, compared to race or ethnicity, which most of our culture understands to be inborn or essential.)
The third example is Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who told police back in 1994 that her minivan had been carjacked by an African American man—while her two children were in the backseat. A mass-media frenzy went on for more than a week, with manhunts throughout the Southeast. Smith's claim that an African American man perpetrated the crime fits the racist image of black men as bestial criminals. What kind of person would steal a car with two kids in the backseat?
One of them.
But detectives doing good police work noted holes in her story, and Smith was convicted of murdering her two children and concocting the carjacking tale.
Yet no one said: "White women—what do you expect from one of them?" or "Their kind murder their children all the time!" No, Susan Smith was just an evil individual, due to her dominant racial subject position.
(Although whether someone is dominant or marginal depends on which aspect of their identity you consider most important in a given social context. I did hear people mutter about Smith being "trailer trash." On a class axis of identity, Smith might indeed be subject to prejudice and its individuality-effacing logic.)
Today, in 2015, we make judgments in real time on Twitter and Facebook while the bullets are still flying at live shooting events. Such judgments invariably play out the Logic of various Prejudices.
Including my own.
When I saw on Twitter that there was a live shooter at a Planned Parenthood, I immediately thought: straight white Christian male. The fact that my prejudice was borne out by the facts is irrelevant. I instantly prejudged: What kind of person would shoot up a women's health clinic?
One of them.
But like it or not, whatever strides racial, ethnic, and gender liberation movements have made in America since the 1950s, no matter what goes on in the heads of left-wing college professors like me, for the majority of our media (liberal and de-facto-conservative-deluding-itself-as-neutral and outright-wack-job-right-wing), straight white Christian men are the dominant group in our culture.
So, Robert Lewis Dear and Dylann Roof and James Holmes and Timothy McVeigh are always individuals, not representative of all White Christian Men. They might be evil or crazy, but their badness or madness doesn't indict the rest of their kind. No one—except cartoonists at Daily Kos and a cadre of smart-ass liberal tweeters—call on white Christian males to condemn their brethren's actions, because the shooters aren't thought to represent their entire group.
The privilege of individuality is part and parcel of white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, and other forms of social inequality.
As our timelines and news feeds fill with the next terrorist attack—domestic or foreign, Islamist or Christianist—watch how many conservatives will insist that all Muslim killers represent 1.6 billion of their co-religionists, while straight white Christian men act only from their own inscrutable individual motives.
And keep the Logic of Prejudice in mind.