Those who assumed Nikolas Cruz was a young white man before his identity was confirmed had legitimate reasons to reach this conclusion.
Last week, Nikolas Cruz, 19, unleashed the full might of an AR-15 military assault rifle on defenseless classmates inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., leaving 17 teenagers dead before authorities apprehended him.
The shooting, the most lethal since 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 worshipers inside First Baptist Church of of Sutherland Springs, Texas, last Nov. 5, marked the eighth time in the last 11 mass shootings that the perpetrator was a white male, and the last five mass shootings in the United States have been committed by white men.
According to a Mother Jones database of U.S. mass shootings since 1982, 54 percent of the 97 mass shootings have been carried out by white men.
Black men accounted for roughly 16 percent of the total incidents during the same period of time, raising the question of why white men are over-represented in these incidents and why law enforcement and media are reluctant to profile them for these heinous crimes.
Experts said painting this issue as one of color is problematic because there are far more white men in the United States than any other race, hence the over-representation. However, equally problematic is identifying mass shooters as mentally ill, which both media and law enforcement do, while stigmatizing minority offenders as criminals.
“What you see across criminal justice is the desire to take a certain crime and mix them with certain types of racial identities,” said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an assistant professor at Temple University in the Department of Criminal Justice. “The stigmatizing tropes about Arab-Americans looking like terrorists. We racially profile young men of color wearing baggy pants as being up to no good. These terrible tropes become shorthand for how we arrest and how we police and how we patrol particular types of crimes.”
Rather than being criminalized, white male mass shooters are overwhelmingly classified as having mental issues that ultimately resulted in these multi-victim slaughters, such as last October in Las Vegas, when 64-year-old Stephen Craig Paddock killed 58 and wounded 546 attending a country music concert.
“There is an undeniable difference in the way this kind of incident is treated and the way it would be treated if it had been carried out by a Muslim or associated in any way with Islam,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Simply put, it would have been an act of domestic terror. There would be no consideration of mental infirmity. And it would have painted all Muslims one way, collectively. These shootings committed by white men are all taken individually and the perpetrators are always ‘outliers.’”
Moreover, mental illness does not cherry-pick by race and sex. Gonzalez Van Cleve points to the absence of women — there are just two — on the list as a reason to be skeptical.
“If this were just a mental health issue, you would have a large representation of women because women also have mental health issues, as do other racial groups,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “Mental illness doesn’t work that way.”
Not to be ignored is the role played by the National Rifle Association. Some say the powerful lobby, with approximately 5 million members, has, through policy, made gun ownership a “white right” while criminalizing minorities with guns.
The shooting of motorist Philando Castile by a Minnesota cop, some say, is a prime example. Castile, an African-American, was a legal gun owner who was shot and killed in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb during a police stop in 2016. All charges against the officer who shot him were dropped.
At the time of his death, Castile was exercising his lawful right to posses a firearm. He informed the officer that he had a gun on him at the time of the traffic stop but was still killed.
The notorious incident had all the makings of a Second Amendment case that the gun lobby probably should have championed. But the NRA never defended Castile. Rather, it later said it could not oppose the shooting because an autopsy revealed Castile had traces of THC, a compound of marijuana, in his system.
“It creates the perception that owning of a gun is a white right,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “But a gun in the possession of an African-American or Latino can only mean that a law is being broken or is about to be broken. These sort of tropes extend to shooters as well.”