Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Terrorism or mental illness? Why race matters

When co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed the Germanwings plane, killing 149 people, “mental illness” was deployed as an explanation. If he wore a turban and had a beard, and if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the media labelling him a terrorist. Where would you put your money? Be honest.

Have you ever read a complex mental health assessment of an Arab/Muslim person committing a suicide-homicide? I doubt it. The media assumes it to be terrorism; a reflection of an entire religion; and mental illness is never used to “understand” the person. Due to unbending stereotypes, Muslims are pressurised to answer on behalf of these violent outliers and convince an unforgiving public that their religion does not deliberately incite violence.

What do Hansie Cronje, Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius, even old Cecil John Rhodes all have in common? They have all been given the benefit of the doubt, despite their scandalous history. Is it because they’re men? Is it because they’re white? Is it both?

Race-police, pause. Journalistic watchdog The Race Matters Institute reminds us that

“it is not uncommon for seemingly ‘non-racial’ stories to have important racial dimensions [and] compared to coverage received by whites, practices and stereotypes within the news media work against people of colour … and over-reports whites as victims”.

The science supports this
The media has a double standard and is racially and culturally biased.

– In a 2007 study commissioned by London mayor Ken Livingstone, 91% of news coverage portrayed Muslims negatively — in just one week.
– David Niven’s 2002 book Tilt? The Search for Media Bias clearly shows that US media is biased, mainly on race and gender, and that trust in journalists actually ranks lower than lawyers!
– Chris Greer, a sociologist, argued that being presented as a victim in the news is influenced by social divisions including class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexuality, along a hierarchy of victimisation.
– Pauline Brennan & Abby Vandenberg’s review of the Los Angeles Times and New York Times concluded “that stories about white female offenders were more likely to contain excuses for their alleged or actual offences and were, therefore, more likely to take on an overall favourable tone than stories about minority female offenders”.
– In an equally shocking experiment, Michelle Eddy & Stephanie Sandor proved that participants were more likely to judge a rape victim as actually wanting sex if the perpetrator had a lighter skin tone compared to if the perpetrator had a darker skin tone. Even in these gross violations of human rights, lighter skinned men were offered greater leniency.
– A 2012 Stanford University experiment led by psychologist Aneeta Rattan concluded that “if people imagine a juvenile offender to be black, they are more willing to hand down harsher sentences to all juveniles … the fact that imagining a particular target could influence your perceptions of a policy that would affect an entire class of people, we think, is pretty important”.

When Lance Armstrong fell of his golden bicycle, USA Today ran a poll “Give Lance a second chance?” In SA, the Independent on Saturday read “South Africans salute disgraced US cyclist” and City Press ran “Lance Armstrong cheated but … ” on its website. This subtle appeal to forgive and understand creeps into a discourse of sympathy for white perpetrators who are seen as exceptions to the norm, and I’ve written about elsewhere.

In the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the majority of opposition to the statue’s removal has used the argument that we must appreciate all the good that Rhodes has done and the mainstream media has gone the predictable route of trying to “understand Rhodes in context”. It is unlikely, if Jacob Zuma or Robert Mugabe was being vilified in the media that those very same newspapers would try to “understand” these two complex characters. Similarly, despite its best intentions, the TRC epitomised the social reluctance to punish white wrongdoers. Using the motifs of forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion, perpetrators became victims of their time or victims of a cruel system where good people had to do bad things.

Xolela Mangcu has argued that a “racialised mobilisation of sympathy” is a frequent quality of white discourse. This rallying cry of solidarity, to forgive or understand, is seen in events of white transgression such as Hansie Cronje being caught for match-fixing. Initially vilified in the media, he was rehabilitated as a repentant hero of national cricket, especially after his death. The same leniency is not offered by white citizens to black perpetrators. Mangcu argues that this is consistent with punitive, long-held stereotypes of black incompetence and the need to punish black people:

“Too often executioners are able to mobilise public sympathy by hogging media conferences, and calling an amazing array of sophisticated diversions and metaphors … before we know it, a reversal of roles has taken place … the original perpetrator has become the victim.”

When brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, the New York Times described them as “two jihadists [who] gave a global audience a ruthless demonstration in terrorism”. When Lubitz deliberately killed himself and 149 passengers his actions were blamed on mental illness. Matt Peppe’s excellent online analysis on this issue is worth reading. This is a bitter pill to swallow but here it is: even terrorists benefit from white privilege.

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A version of this article was originally published in Rapport on April 5 2015.

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