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Why aren’t white extremists called terrorists?

In the wake of every mass shooting committed by a white person, you’ll see a meme circulate on social media. The meme depicts three black or brown people who have been labeled terrorists or criminals. It juxtaposes those three people with one white person––generally James Holmes, the infamous Aurora shooter who looks like a certified maniac–who has been labeled “mentally ill.” The point of the meme is simple: non-whites are called criminals and terrorists when they commit violence, but whites are called mentally ill.

The media has taken up this question. Vice News cites the Anti-Defamation League, which says that “[w]hite men are responsible for 71 percent of extremist-related deaths in America over the last 10 years.” Vox challenges altogether the notion the mentally ill commit mass murder.

The question seems to be: why aren’t whites who commit mass murder called terrorist? But the real question is: Is the label “terrorist” racially biased? Let’s break down that question.

First, what is a terrorist? A terrorist is a person who uses violence, especially against civilians, in order to achieve political aims. Generally a terrorist is part of a much smaller political group and attempting to influence a much large, more powerful group.

Second, what does racially biased mean? In short, it means that certain racial groups are more likely to be considered terrorist because of their race.

The question means, then, are some race groups more likely to be called “terrorists” because their race is somehow, someway associated with terrorism?

The answer to that question is a pretty clear yes. One scholar of race and religion has demonstrated clearly that the equation Arab = Muslim = Terrorist influences the American perception of all three. Even when you hear the word terrorist, you probably think of someone vaguely Muslim or Arabic.

Does that mean, however, that white people should be called terrorists? The answer is that it depends. Recall the definition of terrorist. Timothy McVeigh, for example, was clearly a terrorist since he was part of a very small group attempting to influence politically the United States. James Holmes, however, was not.

That means that we have to be careful when label white people’s acts of extreme violence. Sometimes they are terror, sometimes they are just that––meaningless extreme violence. The latter is far scarier.

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