What Waco Biker Shootout Suggests About Race in America

Harry Bruinius, Christian Science-Monitor, May 20, 2015

The shootout in Waco, Texas, Sunday between two outlaw biker gangs that left nine members dead has led to a controversial question: What if they had been black?

In the immediate aftermath of a shooting that a local police sergeant called “the worst crime scene, the most violent crime scene I have ever been involved in”–and which involved gang members shooting at police–photos show the gang members sitting at their ease, texting, near police officers. Some ask if that would have been the case if the rival gangs had been in some big city, dressed in gang colors and hoodies, having brass-knuckled, stabbed, and shot at each other–and police.

Media coverage has featured little talk about absent fathers or whether subcultures of violence and masculinity are bred in the type of restaurant where the shootout took place, which features waitresses with ample cleavage and barely-there shorts. Would that have been true if it had happened at a hip-hop gathering or an urban strip club?

To many, such attempts to compare the melée in Waco with the civil unrest in Baltimore or New York or Ferguson, Mo., strains reason and evidence. What happened in Waco was in no way a riot. It was a deadly bar fight, plain and simple.

But even that view speaks to how different communities can see the same event differently, say others. It points to “selectively biased concern,” says  Aram Sinnreich, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick, N.J. In other words, Waco reveals the way people’s cultural background influences their perceptions of crime and violence–from a mass shooting by a white gunman in Aurora, Colo., to violent protests after the deaths of a black man in Baltimore.

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But the problems of black communities in some ways remain opaque to many white Americans, leading to concern, when violence breaks out, about single parenthood, the glorification of “thug life,” and overtly sexual lyrics of some hip hop music. Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas said after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore: “Liberals, admit it: Baltimore riots are part of a story of absent fathers.”

Those are legitimate concerns. But that concern is often not reciprocated for similar aspects of white culture, some media analysts say.

“When white people commit violence, they are typically framed by the media as discrete events that are only reflections on the individuals who are central to them,” says Sinnreich. “When black people commit violence, the media typically covers it as an indictment of the symptoms plaguing black Americans overall.”

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