Cornel West recently expressed his belief that the concern Americans have about mass murder reflects a racist lack of concern with the real problem with murder, which is largely black on black.
He has one valid point: mass murders get very disproportionate coverage. In 2011, there were just under 14,000 murders in the U.S.; all the mass murders combined each year are less than 1% of that. Why do they get so much attention?
I can see why Professor West might assume that racism is at the core of this overemphasis. The most common murder in the U.S. is a black or Hispanic young man killing another black or Hispanic young man, usually in a dispute over drugs, gang affiliation, or territory. In some cities, not only are murderers overwhelmingly people with criminal records, so are their victims.
Not everyone with an arrest record is a criminal, of course, and there are doubtless some victims who did something stupid at age 17 or 18 and have been respectable citizens for the last thirty years. But this is part of the apparent indifference of Americans to the depressingly common murders in urban America: many of the victims are part of a criminal subculture, and it is very easy to see these as at worst minor losses for our society. The more cynical might regard these as net gains.
There is more concern about the completely innocent victims who have the misfortune to live in these urban combat zones, but unfortunately, the old saw of journalism that “dog bites man isn’t news; man bites dog is” applies here as well. It is precisely because poor minorities killing their neighbors is so depressingly common that it fails to capture the public interest. And to be fair to Professor West, there is probably some truth to the assertion that most Americans don’t pay much attention to inner-city crime because the victims don’t look like most Americans. The more that someone looks like you, or a friend, or a neighbor, the more you can identify with that person’s suffering.
There is one more aspect of this: the average murder in America takes place in a relatively small number of neighborhoods.
If you live in a part of America that is predominantly white, your risk of being murdered is greatly reduced. If you live in one of these areas and you do not have family or friends who are mentally ill or substance abusers, your risk of being murdered is very low. This is why low gun control states like Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, and North Dakota have murder rates lower (often much lower) than their restrictive gun control Canadian prairie province neighbors. These white non-Hispanic states have murder rates that compare favorably to overall European murder rates.
This is why these random acts of mass murder provoke such anxiety and handwringing from not only journalists and politicians but also from average Americans: you cannot avoid these horrible crimes by staying out of minority neighborhoods, nor can you avoid them by staying away from dangerous acquaintances. It is very easy for most Americans to see the average, generally not well-publicized murders as an unfortunate but not terrifying situation because they are far away and affect people unlike themselves. Monstrous crimes like Newtown are terrifying even though they are quite rare, because they are unavoidable unless we deal with the root problem for most of these: deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.
One of the great tragedies of the degradation of the academic community is how many people holding academic appointments engage in reductionistic thinking: they pick one single factor to explain a problem, and ignore other possible causes. Murder in America is not one thing; it is many things. Inner-city drug gang murders have one set of causes; random acts of mass murder have a different set of causes; revenge killings by disgruntled former employees have yet a different set of causes; domestic violence murders are again different in origin. When the mainstream media encourages reductionistic thinking by giving those who promote these single-factor explanations a platform, it makes it more difficult to have a serious discussion about complex problems. This does not serve the public interest in making good public policy.