Media and Political Responses to San Bernardino Massacre Reveal Racial Coding and Assumptions of Collective Guilt

By Deepa Iyer Dec 04, 2015

Wednesday’s horrifying shooting rampage at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 innocent people dead and wounded 21 others, is the sixth deadliest mass shooting in American history. The investigation into the motives of the two suspects, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, is ongoing. The San Bernardino massacre is also America’s 355th mass shooting this year, according to the Washington Post. Gun violence, whatever the motivations are of shooters, is an American problem that must be addressed with urgency to safeguard the lives of all people in the United States.

Simultaneously, we cannot ignore how the media and political characterizations of the shootings reveal the double standards and assumptions of collective guilt that occur when perpetrators of mass violence are of Muslim, South Asian or Arab descent. What is even worse this time around is that these shootings occurred in the midst of a vicious backlash targeting Muslim, South Asian, Arab, Sikh and Hindu communities since the November attacks in Paris.

The media and political characterizations of the San Bernardino shootings reveal a set of narratives and a language of racial coding that we have seen before. For example, the hashtag #HesMuslim began trending on Twitter on Wednesday evening as information about the suspects was being released. The New York Post, an often racist tabloid, used the headline “MUSLIM KILLERS” on its online cover story about the shootings the following day. Political responses to the shootings have varied, with GOP presidential candidates more likely to characterize it as an act of terrorism at the hands of radicalized Muslims. Presidential contender Ted Cruz said, “This horrific murder underscores that we are at a time of war.” New Jersey governor and GOP presidential contender, Chris Christie, said, "From the time I began to watch the events unfold last night, I [was] convinced that it was a terrorist attack… "If a center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino … can be a target for a terrorist attack, then every place in America is a target for a terrorist attack."

Sadly, given the ubiquity of gun violence in our nation, one does not have to look far to find contrasts in how the media and political leaders characterize White gunmen who terrorize Americans. Indeed, just five days before the shootings in San Bernardino, a White gunman, Robert Dear, killed three people and wounded nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Yet, there were very few political leaders who characterized this massacre as “domestic terrorism” or identified Dear as a terrorist. Dear’s religious viewpoints, which Think Progress reports may have influenced him, and his own path to “radicalization” have not been discussed. Dear follows in a line of other White gunmen such as Dylann Roof (the White supremacist who killed congregants in a Black church in Charleston this summer) and Wade Michael Page (a White supremacist who killed congregants at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin), whose actions were not attributed to White and/or Christian communities generally.  

The differences in these characterizations are not merely semantic. They contribute to the stigmatization and suspicion of Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities. They form  the basis of policy initiatives—from the Alien Absconder Initiative to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System to the Joint Terrorism Taskforces to the surveillance of mosques and Muslim Students Associations—that have profiled, investigated, detained and deported people from South Asia and the Middle East, and hate violence in the 14 years after September 11, 2001.

Additionally, the San Bernardino shootings occur in a national climate that has already been heightened in the wake of the attacks in Paris and the subsequent xenophobic political rhetoric related to blocking Syrian refugees and greater surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods.  In fact, over the past three weeks, several incidents of profiling, harassment and vandalism have been reported around the nation. For example, members of the Islamic Center of Pfugerville, 15 miles outside of Austin, arrived for morning prayer to find torn pages of the Quran smeared with feces outside. At San Diego State, a White man grabbed a Muslim student’s headscarf in a campus parking lot and made racist comments such as “Get out of this country” and “You people bombed Paris.” Several incidents of airport profiling have occurred on American, Delta, Spirit and Southwest Airlines, subjecting Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Muslim passengers to public humiliation. Complaints of targeting and bias also affect many who are perceived to be Muslim. For example, in Queens, New York, a local group reported an anti-Hindu hate crime in which over 40 jhandi flags were burned in the front yard of an Indo-Caribbean, Hindu home on Thanksgiving Day. As Aminta Kilawan, co-founder of Sadhana, noted: “This incident also raises the question of how Islamophobia is impacting our community. Hatred towards all those who ‘look like terrorists’ is spreading all over the world.”

Many community members believe that this wave of backlash will only become heightened in light of the San Bernardino shootings. Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Affairs in the Bay Area, told me: “We have been hearing from community members who are worried about going about their daily lives, from going to work and school, to mosques hiring extra security for Friday prayers to a national conversation around whether Muslim women should be wearing hijabs in public.” Already, a mosque in Manassas, Virginia, has reported receiving a threatening voicemail from someone seeking revenge for the San Bernardino shootings; “You all will be sorry. You all will be killed,” the caller reportedly said.

At the same time, community members, organizations and allies are demanding accountability from media and political leaders and rejecting the narratives of collective guilt and responsibility that only Muslim communities are asked to shoulder. A glimmer of what that might look like occurred in response to the attack of a Muslim woman at San Diego State.  At a rally against Islamophobia, 400 students gathered together for a march through campus. “When Muslim women are under attack, what do we do?” a student called out to the crowd. The response: “Stand Up, Fight Back!” 

Deepa Iyer is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion. Her book, "We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future," was published in November 2015. Iyer is the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and a board member of Race Forward, the publisher of Colorlines.