Two things seem certain after the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, which unfolded Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs: A 26-year-old white man named Devin Patrick Kelley is the lone suspect. And white Americans will face no broad consequences for his alleged actions.
According to reports, Kelley approached the church shortly after its 11 a.m. worship services began. He wore all black, a tactical vest and carried a Ruger AR-15-variant semi-automatic rifle. Officials say the gunman opened fire from outside the building before entering and killing 26 people ranging in age from 5 to 72.
After exchanging fire with an armed neighbor, Kelley fled in his vehicle. Other neighbors chased him into neighboring Guadalupe County, where he eventually crashed. Police found him inside the wreckage. He was dead of unclear causes. The New York Times reported that Sutherland Springs boasts a population in the mid-300s, meaning that Kelley killed the numerical equivalent of 7% of the town’s residents.
Mass shootings of this sort and magnitude are primarily committed by white men in the United States. On Oct. 1, another white man — 64-year-old Stephen Paddock — barricaded himself in a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and opened fire on a country music festival, killing 58 people. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. White men also committed the two previous deadliest mass shootings to occur at American houses of worship: the attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, where Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners; and the mass murder at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, in 2012, where Wade Michael Page killed six Sikhs.
All told, white men account for anywhere between 54% and 63% of American mass shooting perpetrators, according to PolitiFact. Some experts posit that their share is even higher. Yet white Americans compose the only ethnic group in the U.S. that routinely avoids the conversation that, anecdotally, most nonwhite groups have when large-scale violence occurs. That conversation boils down to one sentiment: “I hope the perpetrator was not one of us.” This sentiment stems from a history of nonwhite communities being punished at a massive scale by whites for the transgressions — real or imagined — of individuals who look like them.
Such retribution has typically been carried out in concert with the state, and has often been violent. Government officials in Oklahoma partnered with local white residents in 1921 to raze the thriving black community of Greenwood in Tulsa. They firebombed businesses and homes and killed hundreds of black people, leaving thousands more homeless. The pretense for the attack was an assault allegedly committed by a black shoeshiner, Dick Rowland, against a white elevator operator, Sarah Page.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were carried out by 19 Muslim individuals, acting out plans devised by a terrorist network that constitutes a tiny — and wildly nonrepresentative — fragment of the global Muslim population. Yet the George W. Bush administration saw fit to respond by invading multiple majority-Muslim countries with the U.S. military, resulting in more than 400,000 civilian deaths in Iraq alone between 2003 and 2011.
The American airline industry’s security apparatus was completely overhauled as a result of the attacks — resulting in Muslim individuals being targeted for additional screening and harassment while passing through airports. Hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs spiked. Local law enforcement entities — most famously the New York Police Department — established entire units dedicated to surveilling Muslim communities, looking for terrorists. The NYPD group uncovered no actionable intelligence in its entire 12 years of existence.
The latest iteration of this pattern comes from the Donald Trump administration. The president has already tried several iterations of a ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries. He openly called for all Muslim entry to the U.S. to be suspended following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks in 2015. Trump and his surrogates have more recently used crimes committed by Muslims — like the car attack that killed eight people in New York City in October — to advocate for harsher restrictions on their ability to immigrate.
These suggestions have come almost immediately after the attacks which they referenced. Yet after both the Vegas shooting and Sunday’s attack in Sutherland Springs — which had white perpetrators — the Trump administration has alternately cautioned Americans to wait for more facts before judging; scolded people for “politicizing” these incidents; or derailed any potential conversation about gun control and the remarkable accessibility of firearms in the U.S.
Nor has there been any real societal attempt to hold all white people accountable for a type of crime which they, as a group, commit more than any other.
“Mental health is your problem here,” Trump said Monday, speaking from Japan. “This was a very — based on preliminary reports — a very deranged individual, a lot of problems over a long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation.”
There is no equivalent for white Americans to what nonwhite people endure after mass violence committed by members of their cohort. White life in the U.S. will be in no way inconvenienced, delegitimized or punished due to the actions of Devin Patrick Kelley. On the contrary, it will continue largely uninterrupted. “I hope he’s not white,” is not a phrase most white people will utter. White Americans will not be called on by conservative pundits to denounce or apologize for Kelley’s actions due to their mutual affiliation. And unlike with nonwhites, American authorities will not only avoid discussing white culpability or any deeper American dysfunction, but actively derail attempts to do so.
This is not to say that white people as a whole should be held responsible for every act of violence committed by a white person. It is to observe that whites enjoy a presumption of innocence that Americans protect, aggressively, despite any evidence to the contrary. Rarely a day goes by, meanwhile, without people of color and religious minorities being punished in huge numbers for the behavior of random individuals who look like them. This imbalance in accountability contradicts most notions of equality that Americans purport to value. But it’s also an imbalance that Americans — and most prominently, white Americans in positions of power, like most of the Trump administration — have shown little interest in addressing, let alone subject to a reckoning.
Nov. 6, 2017, 6:14 p.m.: This story has been updated.