Last week, there was a bizarre confluence of hate crimes and murder news. In Wisconsin, James Nichols’ trial for killing a Hmong immigrant after declaring his intention to take one out ended in an all-white jury finding him guilty only of second-degree murder, acting on the judge’s permission to consider a lesser charge. Nichols was never charged with a hate crime.
In New York, we’re watching the trial of Anthony Fortunato , a 21-year-old white man charged with causing the death of Michael Sandy, a 28-year-old gay black man whom Fortunato found online and lured into a meeting. Fortunato and 3 associates say they deliberately chose a gay man, intending to extort money or marijuana out of him. The meeting escalated into a violent mugging; Sandy fled and was hit by a car on the Belt Parkway. Fortunato is now claiming that he himself has had gay experiences and is at the very least sexually confused, and so isn’t guilty of a hate crime.
In a related news topper, John Lee Malvo, the teenage accomplice of John Muhammad, the Washington, D.C. area sniper who shot and killed some ten people over the course of 23 days exactly five years ago, worked with an ABC News producer to contact the daughter of one of their victims. Choked up, he apologized and told her that he was a different person now. He is serving life in prison without possibility of parole. That case busted open the image of serial killers as diabolically clever white men.
All this made me ponder identity, violence, and communal anxiety. I heard about Lee Malvo making that call, thinking how unexpected that would be to a white public susceptible to the notion that all Black men are killers. Hoping that we’d all benefit from a Black prisoner convincing a white person that he was sorry made me feel pathetic.
Anthony Fortunato’s plea reminded me that people carry around multiple identities simultaneously – gay and homophobe, for example, or racist and also “pleasant and cordial” as one person described a conversation with the Hmong killer.
But most of all, I thought about the terrible anxiety most people of color, and soon we may add gay people, feel on the heels of dramatic violence, fear that one of our own was at fault. I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me, “I hope it wasn’t one of us,” or the number of times I’ve thought that myself. The blogosphere is full of people of color defending their reputations after one crazy colored person goes off. Indeed, the entire country of South Korea worried about poisoned relations with the United States after the Virginia Tech shooting.
By contrast, I have never in all 40 years of life heard a white person say, “I hope it doesn’t turn out to be one of us,” or, more appropriately, “That was probably one of us.” Not after Columbine, nor after the Olympics bombing in Atlanta, not during the searches for Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy or Robert Lee Yates. Tim Wise was one of very few white folk to point out that whiteness has something to do with mass school shootings, exhorting white parents to get a clue. Wise points out that in those situations, people look for anything to focus on – they were outcasts, nobody talked to them, they played violent video games – to avoid dealing with the fact that school shooters are largely white boys in very white communities, and that they often target the few teachers and students of color who have the misfortune to be around. Wise reminds us that the common cry after such a shooting – “these things don’t happen here,” accompanied by FBI insistence that school shooters have no common profile – is a patent myth.
All of these reactions are based on power. People of color don’t have enough, and we know that every incident will lead to racial profiling. White people have too much, so they feel no need even to acknowledge the ways in which white serial killers and mass murderers choose victims and crimes to assuage their deep racial and sexual anxieties. In the end, though, we’re all going to suffer.