In the wake of Wednesday's shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, director Ava DuVernay nailed the racist double-standard of the media's coverage of the event.
The black female director of civil rights film Selma, who was snubbed by the Oscars despite much anticipation of her nomination, called out reporters for immediately jumping to the conclusion the shooter, Dylann Roof, is mentally ill — a pass which is most often reserved for white male criminals.
After the horrific mass murder, which left nine dead, the media first ignored the incident and then, after the story gained traction, discussed the possibility of the murderer being mentally ill. Actor Rob Lowe also condemned the media for their double-standard in not reporting a hate crime directed at African-Americans.
When an act of terrorism is committed by a white male, there is often an attempt to humanize the individual in public discourse, with "mentally ill" a stand-in for the usual "terrorist" label. This was exemplified in the world's coverage of Anders Breivik, for example, who slaughtered 77 people, many of them children, in a Norwegian summer camp in 2011. Breivik — who was legally declared sane and able to stand trial — was often in the media described as mentally unstable.
"White killers get the benefit of humanization. We explain their existence through their broken dreams, their struggles and their afflictions," wrote Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice regarding the media's coverage of the white Germanwings pilot who flew a commercial flight into the French Alps in March. "It's part of why Muslim killers are consistently presented to us in mug shots, or why black victims — like Michael Brown, who never killed anyone at all — are presented as scowling, threatening 'thugs.'"
The media's disparity in the discussion of different races reinforces one of America's biggest social demons right now, that of systemic racism. Black people, who were described as "thugs" during the Baltimore protests earlier this year, are often portrayed as hardened criminals, while white criminals are lonely individuals whose mental instability was actually an untreated illness.
All criminals and terrorists should be held to the same standard. The way an issue is collectively discussed invariably informs people's understanding or perception of it. So, if we don't start talking about black people and minorities as equals, they won't be treated that way.