Waco coverage shows double standard on race

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: News reports of white biker gang rampage didn't mention race, but when blacks involved in violence, press makes it main point
  • She says media feeds false narrative that leads Americans polled to say that crimes more likely to be committed by black or brown people

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Sunday, just after news broke of a shootout in Waco, Texas, involving "rival biker gangs" as The New York Times alert phrased it, the political activist Shaun King wrote on Twitter:

"I'll wait (and wait and wait and wait) to hear someone on the news call what just happened in Waco 'white on white' violence."
Sally Kohn
When reporter Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times responded, "do we even know the race of the bikers yet?" activist Deray Mckesson tweeted:
    "If they were black gangs, we'd certainly know by now. That's the point. Waco."
    One of the most distinct characteristics of white privilege is the privilege to be unique. When white people commit violent acts, they are treated as aberrations, slips described with adjectives that show they are unusual and in no way representative of the broader racial group to which they belong.
    In fact, in much of the coverage of the Waco shootings, the race of the gang members isn't even mentioned, although pictures of the aftermath show groups of white bikers being held by police. By comparison, the day after Freddie Gray died in the custody of police officers in Baltimore, not only did most coverage mention that Gray was black, but also included a quote from the deputy police commissioner noting Gray was arrested in "a high-crime area known to have high narcotic incidents," implicitly smearing Gray and the entire community.
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    How did press reports quote the police in Waco? "We've been made aware in the past few months of rival biker gangs ... being here and causing issues," Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. Causing issues? Cops were reportedly so worried about the bikers gathering in the Waco strip mall that they had 12 officers as well as officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety stationed outside the restaurant.
    Now there's word that the biker gangs have issued repeated threats against the police in the aftermath of the Waco "melee" as The New York Times headline called it. During the uprisings in Baltimore, I saw a flurry of tweets about black people disrespecting property and throwing rocks at police. Now that these biker gangs have issued actual death threats, why am I not now seeing tons of Twitter posts about white people disrespecting the lives of police?
    In the comments on one news website, someone -- presumably sarcastically -- wrote, "More white thuggery. When will whites take responsibility for their decaying culture?"
    "Race literally has nothing to do with this situation," another commenter replied. Exactly.
    So why is it that in cases such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray -- and so many others — race is made central to the story, even in instances where the black and brown people involved are victims of police violence?
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    Research shows that implicit bias against black and brown people is real, as is white privilege. And studies show that white people greatly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people. Is it any wonder, given the racialized nature with which we cover crime? According to one study, television stations covered crimes committed by black people in greater proportion than their actual share of criminal acts in the city.
    On some level, the commenter is right: Race has nothing to do with crime. We know that people of all races commit crimes and are victims of crimes in America and the most sensible among us know such cause or effect has nothing to do with skin color. And yet our perceptions and attitudes about criminality have absolutely everything to do with race.
    Does Waco coverage show a double standard on race?
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    When one Muslim person even threatens violence in the United States, it's treated as terrorism of crisis-like proportions. As we saw in the case of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, even when black men are the victims of violence, the burden of proof is placed upon them and their families to show that they didn't deserve it.
    When was the last time you saw an incident of a white guy going on a shooting rampage produce calls for soul searching and recrimination on the part of the white male community? Maybe it should. But how can that happen when even after nine people are dead and 170 arrested in a shooting rampage by a criminal gang of bikers, we'd rather not mention that they are white?