Chapel Hill: Opinion

Key questions in the Chapel Hill shootings

Debates continue, around the world, about the murders of three young citizens of our community, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha who happened to be Muslim, at the hands of Craig Stephens Hicks, who happens to be white. People argue about whether this was a dispute about parking or a hate crime.

My view is that there is an important race analysis to bring to this tragedy.

Hicks has been described as aggressive and threatening. Seemingly he was a man who felt entitled to confront his neighbors regarding his views about parking places and noise levels. There are reports that he spoke to the victims, on several occasions, while brandishing a gun.

This scenario leads to critical questions.

If a black man with a gun spoke aggressively to his neighbors, how long would it take for the police to be called and for that man to be evicted, arrested or shot? As we know from recent history, black men can just look like they have a gun and they can be shot by police.

If a Muslim man, displaying a gun, spoke aggressively to his neighbors, how long would it take for him to be arrested and investigated as a possible terrorist?

The persistent inequities that we observe in America – the achievement gap, the growing wealth gap, health disparities, and disproportionate minority contact with law enforcement – come from disparate treatment of people by race. We profile and over-identify people of color as the problems in society and at the same time under-identify white people who are just as guilty, or more so, of the same problem.

Many have questioned why no one called the authorities on Hicks, who was clearly a menace and a threat. This was not a mundane parking dispute, but a man terrorizing a neighborhood – so much so that a neighborhood meeting was called to discuss the problem. But we are told nothing came of this meeting and we wonder why.

Its also instructive to compare how white people and people of color are characterized following horrific acts.

When a black man commits a murder he, and often his friends and family, are described as thugs, gang members, or monsters. Even black men who are the victims of murders are described this way.

If a Muslim man had shot three white students in the head, we’d surely be investigating him for terrorist ties and stoking the flame of anti-Muslim sentiment that already exists in this country.

Yet, when white men shoot up schools, their workplaces, or their neighbors, we characterize it as just a parking dispute, or say he must be mentally ill, or most upsettingly, as has been said in this case, the victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time. These young people were in their own home, in their own neighborhood at the end of a work day.

This is a racial narrative, the result of 400 years of white dominance and supremacy in this country. It shapes how we see each other by race, and it shapes how institutions respond. No one has to consciously think about it.

Something horrible happened in our community on Feb. 10. Craig Hicks has been properly charged with three first-degree murders and may be eventually be charged with a hate crime.

But this cannot stanch the outpouring of grief and outrage that three young lives have been taken from us.

Sadly this type of occurrence is not unique in our country and we need to ask ourselves why. What we can learn from this? How can we come together to build a community where racial equity is the expectation, and not the exception?