When a law enforcement official described a mobile phone recording left by the Austin serial bomber as “the outrage of a very challenged young man,” the remark caused an outrage of his own.
Because the bomber was white, some people almost immediately the question is asked whether the same level of compassion would have provided a person of color.
“Here you have a case of a young white man who killed and wounded people of color, and we are culturally more concerned about his story, about his life, about what brought him to life,” said David Leonard, professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University. “It is a striking reminder of a racial empathy gap that remains.”
For many observers and activists, the comments about Mark Anthony Conditt were only the latest example in which a white defendant seemed like an injection of humanity that is less often extended to blacks, Muslims and others.
Conditt held the Texas capital in a state of fear for weeks, the planting of five bombs that killed two people and severely injured four others. The 23-year-old community college dropout died on Wednesday after setting off a bomb in his SUV when the police about to arrest him.
The researchers said that his motive is still unclear, despite the discovery of the 25-minute mobile phone recording in which he talked about the bombs.
The U.S. law has defined acts of violence or intimidation linked to foreign groups such as the Islamic State of terrorism. Homegrown extremist groups such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are not labeled that way, even if they employed similar tactics.
Similarly, when Stephen Craig Paddock has been identified as the gunman who rained bullets down on a Las Vegas concert last fall, the white, retired accountant was characterized as a “lone wolf.” That label has also connected to other mass murderers who acted alone, including Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooter James Holmes, a white man who killed a dozen people in 2012.
On the recording, Conditt “do not mention anything about terrorism, nor does he say anything about hatred,” Austin police chief Brian Manley said. “But instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man to talk about the problems in his personal life that led him to this point.”
The reaction on social media was swift.
“When they talked about innocent black children” like Trayvon Martin, Danny Rice or Freddie Gray, tweeted Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“I believe passionately in the recognition of the humanity of those who are even terrible crimes. Read this police chief’s empathy for this young white man highlights the awful — plain awful — the persistent refusal to extend this empathy for young black people,” Ifill added.
That young black men were described as “criminals” by some authorities and in the popular discourse. Another case often cited is that of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old fatally shot by a white officer in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. The New York Times described Brown as an “angel” in a profile, a sentence that drew an angry response from readers and was criticized by its own public editor.
Brown got in a scuffle with then-officer Darren Wilson after Wilson yelled at Brown and a friend off the street where they walked. Wilson said that when he shot Brown, the teenager, was moving menacingly towards him. Some witnesses said that Brown was surrendering.
The first unrest broke out after Brown’s body lay in the street for hours in the heat of the summer. More protests in the grip of the state of Missouri town after a grand jury declined to charge Wilson, who later resigned. The Ministry of Justice also cleared him, but an investigation by the bureau uncovered patterns of racial prejudice and profiling in Ferguson police and courts.
Some critics have also taken exception to reports in the media that included Conditt family and friends describe him as nerdy, and kind.
“Language is always a shot in the dynamics of power. What this demonstrates is the way in which we talk about people affects how we treat them,” said Koritha Mitchell, a professor in the English department of the Ohio State University. “Because we are committed to the treatment of white men as citizens, no matter what, to treat them as people who belong in the fold no matter what, that is the reason that we will not use words like ‘terrorist.'”
The Rev. Yvette Griffin, a black Detroit pastor, said blacks and Muslims can’t seem to get the same presumption of innocence as the other suspects.
“The words are kinder and gentler” for whites, ” she said.
Associated Press Writer Jeff Karoub in Detroit contributed to this report.
Deepti Hajela covers issues of race, ethnicity and immigration for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/dhajela . For more of her work, search her name on https://apnews.com .