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Different responses to black and white

Conor Friedersdorf, writing in "Why the Reaction Is Different When the Terrorist Is White" in The Atlantic, tackles a subject all too often under the radar - the differing response to attacks on either whites or dark-skinned people, especially post 9/11.

"Observing that the Sunday attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin hasn't attracted nearly as much attention as other shooting sprees, including last week's rampage at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Robert Wright wonders if the disparity is due to the fact that most people who shape discourse in America "can imagine their friends and relatives -- and themselves -- being at a theater watching a Batman movie," but can't imagine themselves or their acquaintances in a Sikh temple. "This isn't meant as a scathing indictment; it's only natural to get freaked out by threats in proportion to how threatening they seem to you personally," Wright says, adding that the press ought to give much more coverage to the incident.

In a provocative essay in The Awl, Jay Caspian Kang goes different places with the same core insight. "Who, when first hearing of the news, didn't assume the killings were an act of racial hatred? Who didn't start to piece together the turbans, the brown skin, the epidemic of post-9/11 violence that is under-reported, or at least never has all its incidents connected?" he asked. That narrative "only implicates a small percentage of Americans," he continued, "the story of the massacre at Oak Creek will be, by definition, exclusionary. It will be 'tragic' and 'unthinkable' and 'horrific,' but it will not force millions of Americans to ask potentially unanswerable questions. It will not animate an angry public." It will seem different, he adds, to members of the several minority groups "who cannot limit themselves out of the victims of Oak Creek."

These observations ring largely true to me.

There is, however, another factor that likely explains some of the reticence of some Americans, including professional commentators, to focus very much attention on the Oak Creek massacre.

Their disinclination to grapple with it has less to do with the victims than the gunman. The key factor isn't that they're Sikhs; it's that the apparent homegrown terrorist -- a term virtually no one would object to had a murderous Muslim burst into the Sikh temple -- was perpetrated by a white guy.

Hold the victims constant and give the perpetrator the last name Mohammed. Does anyone think for a moment that such an attack wouldn't still be the most discussed story at Fox News and National Review? And at various network news shows and unaffiliated newspapers for that matter?

Instead Wade Michael Page was the gunman.

Attacks like his are disconcerting to some white Americans for a seldom acknowledged reason. Since 9/11, many Americans have conflated terrorism with Muslims; and having done so, they've tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. (If Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD sent officers beyond the boundaries of New York City to secretly spy on evangelical Christian students or Israeli students or students who own handguns the national backlash would be swift, brutal, and decisive. The revelation of secret spying on Muslim American students was mostly defended or ignored.)     

In the name of counterterrorism, many Americans have given their assent to indefinite detention, the criminalization of gifts to certain charities, the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, and a sprawling, opaque homeland security bureaucracy; many have also advocated policies like torture or racial profiling that are not presently part of official anti-terror policy."

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