| Main | Bio | Books | Boston.com blog | Opeds | Media | Other Publications | Speaking | Links
James Alan Fox
June 22, 2015
Violence, beyond black & white: When looking closely at recent mass
violence motivated by group hatred, a more complex picture emerges
BY JACK LEVIN , JAMES ALAN FOX
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Richard Baumhammers hated Jews, blacks and immigrants
Last week’s murder of nine African Americans at a historic church in Charleston may seem like a continuation of a terrible trend — hate-motivated murder of blacks — albeit with an unusually large victim count. That would be true were we back in the civil-rights era of the 1960s, when such hate killings almost exclusively involved whites killing blacks (or their sympathizers).
In 1963, for example, four black girls were killed when the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite beneath the front steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. In June 1964, three civil rights workers — two white and one black — were abducted and shot to death in Neshoba County, Miss., by members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
But this is putting an overly simplistic frame around the problem. Race has become vastly more complex in 21st century America. The struggle for equality has grown far beyond the relationship between blacks and whites to encompass a broad range of ethnicities whose members compete for opportunity, power and wealth.
A wide variety of racial and ethnic groups live in our cities — where they share schools, neighborhoods and public services, not always agreeably. On occasion, the battles between various clans becomes brutal.None of this is to say that traditional white-on-black racism does not remain a chronic American problem, but only that it is not consistently manifesting itself in mass killings.
While white radicals often despise blacks, they also often consider gays, Latinos, Muslims, Asians and immigrants of virtually all nationalities as a growing threat to their way of life. Meantime, non-whites motivated to commit hate crimes also sometimes engage in mass killings.
These are the four clearly identifiable group-hate-motivated multiple homicides in America since the year 2000:
March 2000, Wilkinsburg, Pa.: Ronald Taylor, a 39-year-old African American who openly expressed his disdain for white people, became enraged about a broken door in his apartment that hadn’t been repaired. In retaliation, he shot to death the white maintenance man and customers at two fast-food restaurants.
April 2000, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Richard Baumhammers, 34, hated immigrants, Jews and people of color. Driving from place to place, he killed five people including his Jewish next-door neighbor, an African-American man leaving a karate school, a Chinese restaurant manager, a Vietnamese-American cook, and an Indian immigrant who was picking up groceries on his lunch hour.
Wade Michael Page killed Sikhs
August 2012, Oak Creek, Wisc.: Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old member of a white supremacist group and white power band, fatally shot six Indian-Americans at a Sikh temple.
April 2014, Overland Park, Kan.: Frazier Glen Miller, a 72-year-old former leader of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, shot to death three people whom he believed to be Jewish at a community center. Actually, all three of his victims were Christians who happened to be visiting the center.
And of course, we continue to see our share of horrific mass murders with no discernable group-hate motive, including the Aurora, Colo. cinema shooting and the Sandy Hook school massacre.
The Charleston church massacre, like these other high-profile mass shootings, has produced not only a widespread sense of grief and loss, but frustration and anger.
Ronald Taylor targeted whites
Some people ask why certain warning signs were missed. Others question how it could be possible for a young man who apparently had run-ins with the law and exhibited behavior that unnerved friends and strangers alike could get his hands on a deadly weapon.
Beyond the particulars of this latest tragedy, the most perplexing question raised by countless Americans is why these cases seem to be occurring at an increasingly alarming rate, to have become, as President Obama remarked in respect to another rampage shooting, “the new normal.”
Without losing sight of the tremendous pain and sadness associated with each and every mass slaughter of innocents, the fact is that what seems to be true simply isn’t.
In any given year since the early 1970s, there tend to be about 20 to 25 mass killings in the United States (the vast majority not racially motivated). While still far too high, this figure pales by comparison with the nearly 15,000 single-victim homicides committed annually.
Thus, the rate of mass killing remains low with no clear-cut evidence of growth, and, more to the point, with no tendency to impact any particular minority segment of American society more than another.
Levin is emeritus professor of sociology and criminology and Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University. They are co-authors of “Extreme Killing: Understanding serial and mass murder.”