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Media coverage of gang violence sure looks different when the perpetrators are white

AP Photo / Jerry Larson

Over the weekend, a shootout between three rival biker gangs at a bar in Waco, Texas, left at least nine gang members dead and 18 others hospitalized with gunshot and stab wounds.

It was a huge, devastating tragedy. The New York Times reported that law enforcement sources called it "the worst violence in the Waco area since the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 that left 86 people dead."

But if you follow the social media conversations around the incident, you'll see something in addition to the predictable shock, curiosity, and mourning for the victims: there's frustration and anger over how the Waco shootout (whose perpetrators appear to be mostly white) is being talked about — and, specifically, how that contrasts with the coverage and commentary of crimes when the people involved are black.

With the Waco incident, we got just the news — not the racial pathology

Those who are using what happened in Waco to start conversations about stereotypes and media biases against black people aren't complaining about the tenor of this weekend's media coverage. They're saying something a little different: that by being pretty reasonable and sticking to the facts, this coverage highlights the absurdity of the language and analysis that have been deployed in other instances, when the accused criminals are black.

In particular, you'll see a lot of sarcasm about "white-on-white crime" and "white-on-white violence."

That's because hand-wringing over "black-on-black" violence is frustratingly common — especially as an attempt to derail the focus on high profile stories of police-involved deaths of black people. It's finally catching on that focusing on black-on-black crime in response to criticism of law enforcement practices doesn't make sense, but the absence of any similar refrain in cases in which the suspected criminals are white is a reminder of how the idea of intraracial crime is almost exclusively — and unfairly — brought up when black people are involved.

Another line of commentary that's predictable in media coverage and commentary surrounding violence involving black people has to do with black cultural pathology.

Politicians and pundits are notorious for grasping for problems in African-American communities — especially fatherlessness — to explain the kind of violence that, when it happens in a white community, is treated as an isolated crime versus an indictment of an entire racial group's way of life.

The total absence around the Waco incident of analysis of struggles and shortfalls within white families and communities is a painful reminder of this.

The "Why are they shooting up their own neighborhood?" question in that last tweet is a sarcastic reference to a common sentiment expressed after the Baltimore riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, and the destructive elements of the mostly peaceful protests in Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown. It's another line of thinking that's conspicuously absent in the television and social media commentary that's surrounded the Waco shootout.

You'll also hear people lamenting that politicians, reporters, and commentators have largely refrained from calling the bike gang members "thugs." There's been widespread sensitivity around the racialized use of that term ever since it was deployed against slain black teen Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012.

This issue came up again, more recently when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake used it to describe the young people who destroyed property when protesting Freddie Gray's death. The fact that the bike gang members accused in this case haven't been slapped with this label is an infuriating reminder of its racial undertones and the way it is so easily and disproportionately deployed against black people, either as an intentional code word of because of deep-seated stereotypes about race and criminality.

The backdrop for the frustration: how black people are treated by the police

To really understand the angst over the language and analysis surrounding what happened in Waco, you have to remember that there's more going on here than just frustration with reports, cable news commentators, and Twitter reactions.

All of this is underscored and intensified by larger concerns about the way the same racial biases that fuel differences in coverage and conversation play out in real life: in the same way observers speak and write differently when black people are involved,  police — perhaps unconsciously— treat black people unfairly. Many times, these biases have deadly consequences.

That's why some observers of the Waco tragedy have taken note of the fact that the gang members in the brawl weren't brutalized or killed by the police officers who arrested them, and actually appeared to be treated with a certain level of civility.

A writer at the blog Crooks and Liars lamented, "Check out the cell phones and smokes while they wait for the cops to process them. No rides in the paddy wagon for them. Just sit on the curb and wait until nice Mr. Policeman has a moment to process you."

That, of course, stands in contrast to what has happened in a string of high-profile cases involving the police-involved deaths of black men who, unlike the Waco bike gang members, were entirely unarmed.

So what's the media supposed to do?

Some have interpreted the backlash as a criticism of media coverage of this particular event, and are confused about what critics want to happen here. Is the media supposed to use harsher language to describe the white bike gang members' actions? Call them thugs? Ask about their fathers?

(In the tweet above, "SJW" refers to shorthand for "social justice warriors" — the people who are doing most of the highlighting of bias on Twitter.)

That confusion is understandable. After all, it's not as if the media has swept this tragedy under the rug or minimized its intensity. The New York Times quoted a Waco law enforcement official who said, "In 34 years of law enforcement, this is the worst crime scene — the most violent crime scene — that I have ever been involved in. There are dead people still there. There is blood everywhere." Outlets aren't holding back from using the term "gang," or talking about the death toll, or explaining the dynamics that led to the battle. Steve Cook, executive director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association, told Vox's Libby Nelson that the gang members are "domestic terrorists."

But the key thing to understand is that the criticism here is not really of the coverage of what happened in Waco. It's of the juxtaposition of what happened here with what happens when the people involved are of a different color. The message is not that the conversation about Waco should be overblown, hypercritical of an entire culture, or full of racial subtext. It's despair over the sense that if the gang members were black, it almost certainly would be.

Watch: The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes

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