Beyond intent: Why we need a new paradigm to think about racialized violence

—Evelyn Alsultany

Three Muslim Americans – Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 – were murdered last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by 46-year-old resident Craig Stephen Hicks. The tragedy has sparked a debate over whether or not these deaths were the result of a hate crime or a parking dispute.

Women take part in a vigil for three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Muslim Americans who claimed that this was surely a hate crime were presented with evidence to the contrary. Hicks’s Facebook and other online posts revealed that he is an atheist who is against all religion, regardless of whether it is Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, a gun enthusiast, and an advocate for gay rights. His online posts show that he is passionate about the protection of constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech and freedom of religion. His archived posts even include commentary on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, in which he writes in support of Muslim rights and notes the important distinction between Muslims and Muslim extremists. His wife has insisted that the murders were the result of a parking dispute, and not a hate crime. As a result, Hicks has been portrayed as not hating Muslims.

This profile of Hicks is indeed complex. He does not fit the conventional profile of a “racist” – i.e., someone who believes that all Muslims are a threat to America; who clings to essentialist and binary notions of identities; who espouses that certain groups of people do not deserve human rights; who practices intentional bigotry; who is firmly rooted in a logic that justifies inequality. I am reluctant to use the term “racist” since it conjures an image of someone who participates in blatant and intentional forms of hate. However, what this case shows us is that we need a new paradigm to understand racialized violence today. Yes, this case is complex, but that does not mean it is not a hate crime. It is complex because it does not fit the narrow way in which we have defined a hate crime.

Posing an either/or option – either this is or is not a hate crime – does not help us understand what transpired. Racism is not an either/or phenomenon. It is deeply embedded in our society and, when left unchecked, has the potential to inform our perceptions and actions in ways not captured by a caricatured understanding of its diverse forms. Racism is not always conscious or intentional. It exists across a vast spectrum of consciousness and intentionality.  As part of our subconscious, racism can manifest in the form of microaggressions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. On the more dangerous side of the spectrum, it manifests in violence. We need to break the association of racism with intent because racism endures without it.

Our current cultural paradigm often makes a simplistic equation: Good people are well-intentioned and are therefore not racist; bad people are ill-intentioned and are therefore racist. Consequently, if the white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Gardner are considered “good people” by their friends, families, and colleagues, their actions cannot be deemed racist. Such a conclusion focuses solely on intent and overlooks how members of the police – like all of us – have been shaped and influenced by notions of black men as threatening and how such cultural imagery has, in turn, structured racialized violence.

The point is not that Craig Hicks is any more or any less racist than the white police officers who murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men. Indeed, the question of their individual, consciously expressed or felt racism does not help us to understand what happened or how to prevent it in the future; it just provokes denial and defensiveness. Conversely, claiming that we are “post-race” and/or denying that a particular incident has anything to do with race does not help us solve the problem of racialized violence.

The point is not whether Craig Hicks is any more or less racist than any of us; the point is that Craig Hicks lives and his victims died in a society that is structured by deeply institutionalized and culturally pervasive racism that exists regardless of whether any individual “wants” it to or not, and regardless of whether we as a society want to acknowledge it or not. We need a new paradigm, a new language and framework, to understand racialized violence today. Hicks’ profile provides an opportunity to challenge ourselves to rethink our understanding of racism and hate crimes in order to prevent murder.

Evelyn Alsultany is Associate Professor in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (NYU Press, 2012).

1 Comment on Beyond intent: Why we need a new paradigm to think about racialized violence

  1. you are so right, we do need a new paradigm to understand racism. Your link between the white ‘good people’ cops and Hicks and the rest of us is so accurate. Racist hunches and preferences and instincts are not the totality of a person, and until we are able to see the real complexity of racism we will run in unsatisfying circles trying to understand Ferguson and Garner and the Chapel Hill murder. Another thread that ties these all together is the knee jerk instinct towards violence. How can a parking dispute end in the murder of three people? How does that make any sense at all?

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