We don't yet know the motivation for Tuesday night's murder of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Mainstream media coverage has taken a measured approach to reporting on the murders and avoided jumping to conclusions about what may have prompted the killings.
That's a good thing. We don't have much information about this crime yet, and speculating too much in the meantime won't be helpful. But to many members of the Muslim community in the US, the stark difference between this approach and the way the media has covered other crimes — particularly when committed by black or Muslim suspects — speaks to larger, frustrating issues, as perfectly summarized by this tweet:
Or, even more bluntly, in this one:
In other words, when Muslims or African-Americans commit crimes, the media is eager not only to see those acts as part of a broader pattern, but also to interpret them as evidence that those communities embraced norms or values that contributed, at least indirectly, to violence.
That tendency takes many forms. Demands that moderate Muslims personally condemn every act of Islamist terrorism, for instance. Or assertions that black "culture" encourages black people to commit crime.
If white Americans commit similar crimes, however, the response tends to be quite different. People like Elliot Rodger, whose murder spree at the University of Santa Barbara in 2014 killed six people and injured 13 others, or James Holmes, who murdered 12 people and wounded 70 more in a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, are treated like mentally ill individuals, not as evidence of broader problems with "white culture."
Both types of coverage miss something. It's not reasonable to jump to broad conclusions about the norms or values of a community based on the actions of a single member, or a few members. And it's bigoted to imply that Muslims are responsible for other people's crimes if they don't actively denounce them. But it's also true that white men, even those who are mentally ill, can potentially be motivated by forms of extremism. Rodger, for instance, had a long history of mental illness, but was also motivated by extreme misogynist views that were reinforced in the communities he joined online.