How to Misrepresent the Racial Demographics of Mass Murder

If the public only hears about white men perpetrating mass murder and never hears about black men perpetrating mass murder, it is likely that some portion of the public will come to believe that mass murder is an exclusively white male phenomenon. What they wouldn’t know is that, excluding gang killings, according to data posted by Statista, the racial distribution of mass shootings from 1982 through March 2001 shows that whites are underrepresented in mass murders. Whites are 76 percent of the US population. Excluding Hispanics, the US population is 69 percent white. If we include Hispanics in the white demographic (which artificially enlarges the white population, since not all Hispanics identify as white), and exclude other and unknown race or ethnic identity, whites commit 68 percent of mass murders. If we exclude Hispanics, 59 percent of mass murders are committed by whites.

Mass Murder

A question one might have is why the media manufacture the perception that mass murder is a white male phenomenon. A related question is why gang-related and other high casualty killings in black neighborhoods are excluded from the data of mass murder as typically reported by the media. This last piece is significant, because the data provided by Statista, even though it finds whites are underrepresented in mass murder, distorts the reality of mass murder in a way that is biased towards whites: it exaggerates white representation in mass murder. And not by a little.

Before Black Lives Matter, prominent publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian discussed the problem of excluding black victims of mass shootings by not counting mass shootings by black perpetrators in the context of inner-city violence. “Few of the incidents resembled the kinds of planned massacres in schools, churches and movie theaters that have attracted intense media and political attention,” The Guardian reported in 2016, reviewing an analysis conducted by The New York Times (which lies behind a pay wall once you’ve used up your few free articles). “Instead, the analysis, defined purely by the number of victims injured, revealed that many were part of the broader burden of everyday gun violence on economically struggling neighborhoods.”

What The New York Times found is that, counting mass murders defined as four or more people injured or dead, three-quarters of the victims of mass murder whose race could be identified were black. Homicide is for the most part intraracial, which means that it occurs within racial (and ethnic) groups. Simply put, blacks are mostly killed by blacks, while whites are mostly killed by whites, and so on. When interracial homicide does occur, considerably more whites killed by blacks than blacks killed by whites. I emphasize this because I do not want readers to get the impression that blacks are being mass murdered by whites. Blacks are being mass murdered by other blacks. For black victims of violent crime, the Justice Department shows that around 70 percent of those perpetrators are black and less than eleven percent of their offenders were white. In other words, the overwhelming majority of violent crimes against blacks are committed by other blacks.

Champe Barton, writing for The Trace, is one of the few persons speaking about this matter in the context of Black Lives Matter, albeit deceptively. Barton is reporting that high-casualty shootings have nearly doubled during the Pandemic. (We are in the middle of a 30-year high in violent crime thanks for Black Lives Matter.) He notes that “mass shootings only slowed under a commonly used but restrictive definition that leaves out most mass-casualty incidents. When defined as incidents in which four or more people were shot in a public or private space, there were more mass shootings in 2020 than in any of the previous years for which data is kept.” How many mass shootings? “Last year saw more than 600 mass shootings, almost double the average of the previous five years. The trend has continued into 2021, with more than 100 such shootings before the end of March.”

According to The Guardian, statistics show that the vast majority of high-casualty events occur in impoverished, disproportionately black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Roughly a third of the incidents with known circumstances were drive-by shootings or identified by law enforcement as gang-related. Barton reports “that many victims and community activists believe that the dearth of coverage of particular shootings owes, at least partially, to the race of the victims.” Pay attention to the framing. “In 2020, mass shootings disproportionately occurred in majority-Black neighborhoods. But even the highest-casualty incidents received limited national media attention.”

“According to a recent study published in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity about shooting victims in Chicago,” reports Barton, “this pattern [of downplaying high-casualty events where the victims are black] held for local news outlets. It found that Black people killed in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city in 2016 received roughly half as much news coverage as white people killed in majority-white neighborhoods.” 

The first sentence from the article Barton cites, by White, Stuart, and Morrissey’s “Whose Lives Matter? Race, Space, and the Devaluation of Homicide Victims in Minority Communities,” begins with this sentence: “The recurring, horrific deaths of minority residents at the hands of police officers and vigilantes have led social movements and international protests to amplify the charge that whereas the loss of White lives is seen as tragic, the loss of Black and Hispanic lives is treated as normal, acceptable, and even inevitable.” The suggestion that there is systemic racism in lethal officer-civilian encounters, along with the method used, namely, “[b]uilding on and advancing theories of “‘colorblind racism’,” reveal the bias of the authors. Instead of seeing the exclusion of these events on the basis of the race of the perpetrator, they frame the argument in a way that blames white racism for ignoring black victims, while, at the same time, mystifies perpetrator race.

I don’t think it’s the race of the victim that causes reporters to hesitate in reporting these facts. I suggest that it’s the race of the perpetrator that lies behind the near total media silence on the issue. Because they are loathe to report facts that reflect poorly on black and brown communities, perhaps fearful of being branded racist, but also (and more likely) in light of the agenda to portray white males as the personification of the alleged Western pathology of white supremacy (the antiracism project), the corporate media present the data in a way that creates a false perception that whites are more likely to perpetrate mass murder.

The truth is that white men are much less likely to perpetrate mass murder than black and brown men. The narrative of white mass murder is a moral panic functional to the agenda to delegitimize Western civilization, a civilization paired with whiteness by the political left, which dominates American institutions. If academics, progressives, and reporters actually cared about black and brown men, then they must be concerned about this problem, since most of the victims of high-casualty events are black and brown men. But the corporatist agenda is more pressing.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

One thought on “How to Misrepresent the Racial Demographics of Mass Murder”

  1. An excellent screening and analysis of facts. This is really what journalists should do (probably with the assistance of people who understand statistics ..) but the trend is the same globally. Journalists act as mouthpieces for populist politicians without any grounding in reality.

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