I woke up Monday morning and saw the alerts on my phone. I had to blink my eyes to make sure I read them correctly. Hundreds injured and over 50 dead in a deadly shooting in Las Vegas.

My first thought was I hope it’s not a Muslim. I saw the name, Stephen Paddock, and thought I hope it’s not a black person. After several minutes of trying to find a description of the shooter, I realized it must have been a white man.

A person of color is always defined by their race or religion first, a regular white guy is not. That is part of the systemic racism in this country.

That same day a neighbor posted on the social network site Nextdoor.com about suspicious activity around her house. The subject of her post was, in all capital letters, “TWO BLACK GUYS ATTEMPTING CRIMINAL ACTIVITY.” There was no further description. Not height, build, clothing, age range, facial hair, or any other unique characteristics about these men.

On a previous post about suspicious activity in our neighborhood committed by a white person, the subject line was “Older teenage/early 20s boy walked between my and my neighbor’s backyard, doing what?” The boy is described as white in the sixth paragraph of the post as part of a much fuller description, “The boy/man today is white, wearing a red polo shirt, dirty blonde/light brown hair in a bowl cut style.” Also, this situation is described as suspicious as opposed to an attempted crime.

Until I went through my thought process that Monday morning I never really noticed the systemic racism in reporting. I mean, I sort of did. I would argue that the local news focuses on the criminal activity in the poor neighborhoods which are mostly minority, which is why it seems like all local crime happens by minorities. But I never really noticed the difference in how a person was described or not described. Those subtleties truly affect how a person thinks of groups of people. When you start your reporting with race or religion, you are immediately tying those groups of people to the crime as opposed to simply tying an individual to a crime.

Why was my first thought Monday morning “I hope it wasn’t a Muslim”? Because I have seen how that plays out. Muslims around the country will be yelled at, spit at or worse, as we saw after 9/11, shot and killed. There would be more calls to ban all Muslims from coming to this country, even if the Muslim shooter was born and raised here. Even non-Muslims with brown skin or turbans would suffer the consequences of this one person’s actions. And no one would search for the motive, it would be assumed. A similar situation would play out if the shooter were a black person. People would cry out “first they disrespect the flag, and now they are mass murdering Americans.”

“They” would be an assumed affiliation with Black Lives Matter. Once again the search for a motive would be brief as the motive would be assumed and a non-violent movement, not to mention an entire race would be implicated.

We make assumptions when a white person commits a crime too. If this white guy killed people at a hip-hop show instead of a country show, the motive might be assumed that he is a White Supremacist. When a white police officer shoots a black man the story always questions if the police officer was a racist. Not was he tired or suffering from PTSD.

Why is this? I think it is because our reporters and our own reporting prioritize looking at people as part of a group, robbing us of the ability to see people as individuals.

We do this more often with minorities. We speak of minorities as though they are “the other.” This is systemic racism. It is not about what an individual thinks or does, it is about the media and the culture. When I tried to point this out to my white friends, I saw their resistance to the idea. They get frustrated with the idea they have to watch what they say or how they say it. They believe if they have no racist intent behind their words it should not matter. It does.

Words shape ideas. Ideas can create biases. Biases get innocent people killed.

I began to see this problem of systemic racism by listening to others. To listen means to be open to the idea that there is a problem and that is uncomfortable. Systemic racism is not the same as individual racism. People feel like they are not racist, so problem solved. But this is not about how you feel about a group of people, it is about the habits that have been developed in the way we speak. As with most habits, these habits have consequences. And the problem is a long way from being solved.🔷

(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Pug50.)