White lies

Asking "How could it happen here?" reveals the racism behind our thinking about violence

Published May 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Leave it to Larry King to remind me that just when I thought I couldn't go any lower, there's farther for me to fall. He snagged me Friday night when, about to put in a video, I heard him say, "We'll be back after this break with the actor Yaphet Kotto, who used to live in Littleton, Colo." I should have known better, but did I insert that video and zone out? No way. I waited for Kotto, who must have been among a handful of blacks in Littleton, to enlighten me about the killings there.

You know you're losing it when you delay video oblivion to hear an actor who stars in a TV series called "Homicide" shed light on the subject of violence in America, but as they say in Narcotics Anonymous, my bottom had come and I knew it, as I listened to Kotto suggest the solution was getting God and prayer back in the schools. Crusades or Jihad, anyone?

Loath as I am to admit it, I must say that I was relieved when I heard that the two teenagers who killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton weren't black. Why? Because the thought of spending days listening to smug pundits pontificating on black pathology, black predators, black violence, the broken black family and plain old bad black people at maximum volume was too much to bear. It's bad enough that the assumption that black people, and particularly young black people, are either used to or inured to violence is an ongoing subtext in American thought, conscious or subconscious. But frankly, the thought of having Katie Couric and Stone Phillips breaking that old Negro pathology down for us 24-7 was too awful.

My relief didn't last long. In the final analysis the tally's the same and the loss of life equally tragic whether you have two white kids dressed in black trench coats launching an organized assault on 13 people, or assorted black kids wearing Hilfiger or Mecca in New York or Chicago or L.A. shooting one person a day for 13 days as a way to settle a beef. What seems to be lost in all the pseudo-soul searching, pontificating and special reports is that violence is a virus that replicates and crosses all boundaries. It's no more a po' black inner-city disease than AIDS was for gays only. For the last two weeks the media dissection of Littleton has been far more complex, thoughtful, thorough -- and dare I say longer -- than it would have been had the perps been people of color. Unfortunately, it hasn't been any more insightful. Our discussion of Littleton keeps us in dangerous denial, as we search for reasons why these "good" kids went "bad."

Far from shedding light on why this happened or what steps might be taken so it doesn't happen again, the obsessive coverage of the Colorado shootings has revealed how profoundly racialized, and racist, American notions of violence are. Larded throughout the shock, sorrow, confusion and need to understand the events in Littleton is the pervasive notion that "this couldn't happen here" -- that whiteness, and white privilege, shields communities like Littleton from violence. (In fact, it's rarely if ever mentioned that all of the young people who've shot up their schools in the last 18 months have been white.)

To most people, what seems most profoundly puzzling about the violence in Littleton is that with the exception of Isaiah Shoels -- killed because he was black, an ink spot on the American dream of violence-free whiteness -- both the perpetrators and the victims were good (read: white) kids living in clean, safe, moneyed (read: not too many people of color in the area) communities, who had everything to live for (read: They were going to a good high school, then on to college and good jobs, as opposed to attending crummy urban schools that are holding pens until the students graduate into privatized prisons). With few exceptions, the national response to the violence in Littleton has brought into the open the American belief that pathological violence, like those signs at Mississippi water fountains during Jim Crow, is For Colored Only. No longer. As Malcolm X said in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the chickens have come home to roost.

What's surprising isn't that the shootings occurred; they're just the latest in a pattern of youth violence that has been escalating for decades. What is surprising, and appalling, is how shocked much of white America is by what happened, and how deeply conditioned by racism that surprise it. Did puzzled white suburbanites really think they could physically escape the propensity for and possibility of violence? That segregation from people of color was the answer? That if they lived in the 'burbs, in a nice house, and earned a better than decent living, they could protect their children from the violence that surrounds all Americans? In a strange way, the events in Littleton could be interpreted as an advertisement for city living, where diversity of race, class and politics and the stress of day-to-day living preclude the possibility of being lulled into a sense of immunity to real-life America, in all its violent glory.

It would be a pleasant surprise if the horror at Littleton opened our eyes to the pervasive and horrific violence that surrounds and is available to all of us, all the time, across race, class and geography. Let's face it, we don't even need cable to tune into VNN, the Violence News Network. We need to stop searching for someone to blame -- parents, the evil Internet, Marilyn Manson -- and look at ourselves. We're awash in the glow of violence; if you don't believe it, turn on the TV, go to the movies, open a magazine, look at a few billboards, read a newspaper, listen to our language. The only finger of blame I can reasonably point are at the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers, who've lulled us into mass delusion with their idiotic mantra, "Guns don't kill, people do." Yeah, but people kill a lot fewer people when they're armed only with their fists as opposed to semiautomatic weapons. And sorry, Yaphet, but God in the schools isn't the silver bullet -- see what I mean about the language? -- either. Judging from the memorials we've watched since the killing, there was plenty of God in Littleton schools.

The only lesson worth learning from Littleton is that violence in America pervades, crosses all boundaries and, because it is random, is inescapable. You can run, but you can't hide, and the boogeyman isn't necessarily a bro in baggy jeans. If we learned that lesson, maybe we'd be closer to doing something about it. Maybe. The only thing I know for certain is that next time it goes down, I'll be neither surprised nor relieved by the level of violence, and I won't watch TV expecting enlightenment.

By Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson is the author of "Volunteer Slavery" and "Straight, No Chaser."

MORE FROM Jill Nelson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Larry King