Guest column by The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian: Wrestling with the headline, ‘This is what we’ve become’

  • People visit a makeshift memorial at the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex, Tuesday, Aug. 6, in El Paso, Texas. AP

Published: 8/12/2019 6:00:15 PM

In early August, my husband and I were vacationing on the coast of Maine when we heard the news that a mass shooting had occurred in El Paso, Texas. Then we learned that just 13 hours later there was another mass shooting, this time in Dayton, Ohio.

I became frantic and wanted news about these horrific events. I drove up and down the “Shore Road,” stopping at 7-Elevens and Cumberland Farms stores to buy whatever newspapers they had to read all the details.

I bought every newspaper I could find. I read the news: 22 people killed in El Paso; nine people killed in Dayton; scores wounded.

I read the New York Times, USA Today and the Portland Press Herald. The chilling, numbing details were the same in every account.

But it was when I picked up the copy of the Boston Globe on Aug. 5 that I paused and thought, what? Who wrote this headline? There it was on the front page of the Globe in big, bold letters, 1 inch tall. The headline read: “This is what we’ve become.” I had an immediate reaction.

I had already read enough about mass shootings in America to know that the profiles of the El Paso and Dayton shooters were familiar: two young males. Two young white males. One, the El Paso shooter, an avowed white supremacist.

Profoundly disturbed individuals who commit mass shootings often fit the same description. They are typically young, white, male and committed to white supremacy, usually possessing an obsession with violence, a love of extremist views, a fascination with the military, a virulent presence on social media and a fondness for guns.

The descriptions of the killers in one mass shooting after another sound the same. There are exceptions, I know. The shooter in the Las Vegas rampage in October 2017 was a middle-aged white male. But overall, the profile is the same — young white men who glorify violence and identify with racist ideology.

I read the Globe headline again: “This is what we’ve become,” and I thought, “Who is the WE in this sentence?” “We” involves everyone. So why are the editors at the Globe lumping the targets of racist violence in with the perpetrators of racist violence? The problem with the word “we” in the headline is that it blurs the distinction between those who are targeted by the bullets and those who are shooting the guns.

In my mind, the headline should read, “This is who white supremacists have become: mass shooters.”

In this country, communities of color have been targeted repeatedly by mass shootings and are rarely mass shooters. So my reaction to the headline was: Don’t merge the victims of violence with the perpetrators, and thereby make the victims guilty.

As I sat in Maine, filled with despair, and angry at the Globe, I found an additional problem with their headline, “This is what we’ve become.” Restless and unhappy with their wording, I wondered: become? This is what we have become? As if this nation was somehow different in the past? As if this behavior is new? Sadly, but truthfully, this is what this nation has always been.

Name for me a time in this nation’s history, a chapter in our past, when white dominance did not rule the land, when violence and the threat of violence by white people was not deployed to oppress and exploit people of color, when communities of color were not under the thumb of white power. We are a nation built on white dominance and power.

I was taught in grade school that Columbus discovered America. But how do you discover an already inhabited land? There were an estimated 12-18 million indigenous people living in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492.  And there were only 6 million indigenous people still alive there in 1650. From our earliest days, this nation was built on white supremacy, land grabbing, and violence.

Trace our history from the arrival of Europeans in 1492 to the middle passage that spanned the years 1600 to 1865, when millions of men and women of African descent were forced into bondage, transported across the Atlantic, treated violently, their labor exploited, traded and sold in America.

The Mexican-American War, fought between 1846 and 1848, was driven by the 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, resource predation and the preservation of slavery. Twenty-five thousand Mexicans were killed or wounded in that war, which resulted in the acquisition of what is now California, Arizona and New Mexico, along with the permanent takeover of Texas.

Recall the internment camps during World War II, during which an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated and incarcerated.

Consider the segregation, intimidation, inequality and unjust treatment of African-Americans in the years following the Civil War and lasting until and beyond the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Consider the social, political and economic inequality facing members of the African-American and Latinx communities in this country right now — the institutional racism woven into the very fabric of our society.

The history of this country is a history of oppressing every community of color that once lived on this land, was brought by force to this land, or immigrated to this land. It is a history of inequity, brutality, discrimination and violence.

And yet, following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the Boston Globe headline reads: “This is what we’ve become.” Become? Oppression and violence are our legacy, our history, our past. My response is: Who is the we? And, this is what we’ve become? Have you not considered this nation’s past?

As a person of faith, I know we go on. In our best moments, those of us committed to equity, justice and nonviolence go forward together. We call out injustice and try to face each new day with courage.

We try to take hands across the differences meant to divide us and pledge again to name injustice, call out inequality, fight discrimination, march to stop gun violence, and vote lawmakers who spew hate out of office.

I am choosing to believe that the shootings in El Paso and Dayton will be a wake-up call to white people in this nation. That white people will wrestle with their/our privilege, entitlement, love of power and use of violence. That white people will recognize that the horrific shootings are not an aberration. I am hoping that this newest tragedy will pierce white people’s complacency, and jolt every single white person to take action to stop gun violence.

I am choosing to believe that the national conversation on race that needs to happen in this country, the conversation that is centuries overdue, will now actually occur.

I am choosing to believe that the reparations due to every African-American and Native American in this nation will soon be made a reality.

I am choosing to believe that the victims of violence at the hands of white extremists will no longer be blamed for their own persecution.

I am choosing to believe that the courage, strength, beauty and spirit of communities of color will be uplifted, valued, and honored in the days, weeks, months, years, decades and centuries ahead.

I am choosing to believe that the strength and intensity of love that rises up as a powerful force for good will win out against the evil present in our society.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield.


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